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Reliving the past

  • Bill Gaddes today
    Bill Gaddes today
Published November 10. 2009 05:00PM

Korean War veteran William Gaddes' Message to America: "We Americans live in the world's finest Democracy. We are free to worship our God, and to pursue a life of our own choosing. However, with Democracy comes responsibility. We must constantly work to respect and preserve it. Our Democracy was won; and preserved many times against serious threat by Americans who firmly believed in our Democracy, as they understood it and what obligations they had, and who were willing to give the ultimate sacrifice to preserve it.

"Thank God for the commitment and sacrifice of our previous generations. They understood what their Democracy and nation required of them. We built our freedoms on the shoulders of previous generations. We owe them an incredible debt of gratitude. We must all accept the responsibilities that come with our Democracy, realize that it is fragile, and we must commit our resources to counter a threat; the likes of which we have not seen before.

"We are under serious threat; economic, military, and cultural. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that we can counter this very real threat with lofty ideals and moral superiority.

"We must remain vigilant, committed, of single mind, and unified in our goals. We must love and preserve our culture, its language, and its traditions.

"The family unit must be preserved and respected. We must remain strong militarily, providing the finest technology and training to our military. We must remain ever vigilant to this very real and unprecedented threat; we must be willing to commit to preserve our precious culture and Democracy, by 'putting it all on the line' when necessary, as our previous generations have done. God Bless America."

Airman Bill Gaddes, floating through fluffy clouds just outside the B-29 that was soaring 33,000 feet over Korea, seethed as he peered into the plane and saw a fellow crew member repeatedly bash Gaddes' own still body in the face with the hatch from the tail-gunner compartment. The man couldn't get into the tiny space, and so just kept pushing the hatch into Gaddes to try to rouse him.

Gaddes, all of 21, had no fear of death.

"You think, 'it's never going to happen to me,'" he said.

Gaddes, a tail-gunner, worked in a cramped space.

"You couldn't even take a parachute back there. You had to crawl 35 feet forward to put the parachute on before you could jump out of the airplane."

On this mission, he was in the tail of an airplane from Alaska.

"Up in Alaska, they didn't fly gunners. Apparently, they had a real serious pressurization leak around one of the windows. So instead of going to the trouble of fixing the window," Gaddes said, they shut off the tubes that carried air pressure back to the tail area. "So, therefore there was no pressurization back there. I was the first gunner to fly in this airplane over Korea. We were at 33,000 feet and I was on oxygen."

The plane flew almost all the way across Korea. Gaddes, on oxygen, had no way of knowing he had no pressurization. Then, he took off his oxygen mask "to take a swig of Coke and eat a cookie, and I went unconscious. The only thing that saved me was crew discipline. They tried to get ahold of me, I didn't answer. They rang the bailout bell, I didn't answer."

The pilot put the plane into a dive.

"I had this out-of-body experience when we went down to about 6,000 feet," Gaddes recalls. "I was outside, looking through the airplane, and one of the scanners was hitting me in the face with a hatch, and I was very angry.

"He kept hitting me, and I couldn't move." Gaddes began to regain consciousness. "But I'm outside the airplane, looking through the airplane, and I was very angry that this guy was hitting me in the face. But all at once, BAM! I'm back in the airplane."

As Gaddes came to, the scanner was still smacking him with the hatch, trying to wake him.

"He couldn't get inside the compartment - it was too small," Gaddes said. He didn't want to come back. "I was content. I was nice and warm and fuzzy."

It was only after they landed that they discovered the pressurization tubes had been cut off.

While the experience shook him, he had a greater fear than lack of oxygen.

"One thing I did worry about. When we flew in the winter and you looked down over North Korea and you knew it was 20 below zero and 30-knot winds, and we had heard stories about prison camps. I didn't like the idea of having to bail out and become a prisoner of war. Korean prisoners of war had a horrible experience," he said, somber.

Gaddes joined the U.S. Air Force in 1948, about three months after graduating from Coaldale High School. He served 20 months in the Korean War, the "Forgotten War," the one that began just five years after the end of World War II.

His keen interest in the military started young.

"I was always interested in aviation," he recalled. "During World War II I was very interested in airplanes and built a lot of airplane models. I had relatives in the Air Force, the Marine Corps and the Army. I collected a lot of memorabilia as a boy."

After enlistment and a year of training in electronics, Gaddes in 1949 joined a B-29 Reconnaissance Squadron in California.

In December, 1949, the squadron was sent to Yokota, Japan; Gaddes went by ship.

"We arrived there in January 1950," he said. The Korean War began just months later.

About a month into the war, Gaddes was asked if he wanted to be a gunner.

"I ended up being a tail-gunner in a B-29, with no gunnery training. I was an electronics technician, but they were desperate for gunners," he said.

Gaddes, all of 20 years old, flew his first combat mission, over North Korea, under the tutelage of a fellow called Tech Sgt. Wilcox.

"Literally, my first hour in a B-29 was on a combat mission," he recalls with a wry smile. "I thought it was wonderful. Sgt. Wilcox was probably twice my age, a World War II gunner."

He flew reconnaissance for 20 months, from the summer of 1950 until May, 1952. The war ended in 1953.

"We roved all over the Korean peninsula," he said.

The crew did weather reconnaissance and other duties.

"We were sniffing for nuclear activity ... this was way before satellites," Gaddes said. "And we were doing photography and a little bit of listening for radio communications."

Other activities were classified, so much so that Gaddes will not talk about them 60 years later.

"I don't want the FBI knocking on my front door," he said. "I think some of it has never been declassified."

In 1952, he returned to the United States, to his close-knit family.

"I had missed three Christmases and two Thanksgivings," he recalled. "That was the toughest, I think, missing those holidays. I used to get homesick over the holidays."

He had been overseas a "total of 30 months, nonstop. In those days, you didn't get a short tour," he said.

His position as tailgunner gave Gaddes a wide perspective of the battle.

"Because we would have briefings and we would fly over, then debriefings, I saw the whole war unfold," he said.

American troops stationed in Japan had been called in to stop North Korean Communist forces from their invasion of South Korea. The Pusan Peninsula battle was crucial to that mission, but deadly, costing more than 19,000 American lives, according to an Aug. 1, 2000 article in VFW Magazine.

At least 33,741 American troops died in the Korean War, including the 2,333 Pennsylvanians who died, or went Missing in Action or as Prisoners of War.

"I saw it unfold all the way down to where the Pusan Perimeter, in August 1950 ... we only had 50 by 90 miles around Pusan, that was it. We were almost kicked off the Peninsula because we were totally unprepared. We didn't have any effective ground support airplanes. It took until late August before the Navy got over there with an aircraft carrier and the Marines got there with Corsairs." he said.

In September, however, General of the Army Douglas "MacArthur had that famous Inchon landing, which turned everything around," he said.

But then, crisis struck when the Chinese intervened.

"It was a disaster for the Americans," Gaddes said. "The Chinese were so disciplined. They traveled at night. They got half a million men across the Yalu River, without our knowing. During the day, they covered themselves with white cloth because of the snow. They were so disciplined that nothing moved. There were no fires, nothing. All our intelligence and recon were completely caught off-guard, so when they attacked, they attacked in force."

One of the most heartbreaking battles of the Korean War was fought from late November through early December of 1950, in the mountainous Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. The 1st Marine Division, isolated and suffering from the bitter cold, found itself surrounded and outnumbered by the Chinese. The severe weather - high winds, snow and sub-zero temperatures - cut off any hope of air support.

But the troops rallied, managing to knock out 10 Chinese infantry divisions as they fought their way to the North Korean port of Hungnam to rejoin the American forces there.

The cold was so bitter, Gaddes said, that military doctors' hands were too numb and frostbitten to be able to help the wounded.

Gaddes served in Korea through five campaigns, earning five Battle Stars.

He watched the war unfold from the tail of a B-29 - the "Super Fortress" of war planes. He was the only gunner on the stripped-down plane. He didn't fire often.

"We didn't have a lot of intercepts," he said. Most of our scares came from operating in very bad weather, operating in snow storms, fog. Our squadron flew 24/7, regardless of weather. Engine problems, landing in bad weather, you didn't have the sophistication they have today. We almost ran out of fuel one time. We were running on fumes - we had been airborne 23 hours and 40 minutes."

Along with the hair-raising moments came an eerie one.

In March 1952, "We had an interesting UFO experience," Gaddes recalled. "We were up over the Yalu River, along the border of China and North Korea. We were flying 33,000 feet over the river. Our navigator's radar scope bloomed with energy. He panicked. he got on his intercom, wanting to know what was out there."

Neither Gaddes nor the others saw anything. The ground support radioed back, telling them "there is nothing out there," Gaddes said.

"North Korea was completely blacked out, China was completely blacked out. You could have seen a little fire 50 miles away. You would have been able to see headlights. There was no weather balloon, no cloud reflections, no searchlights. Nothing.

But suddenly, "alongside came this pulsating, bluish-white light off the right of the airplane. Instantaneously, it moved to the front of the airplane, which is virtually impossible. Then it went above the airplane and finally came behind us," he said.

"I saw it very distinctly. It was flat, bluish-white and it pulsated. Something none of us had ever seen before. It stayed out behind us. Our radar scope still bloomed with energy."

The oddity "followed us for awhile, and then it started to climb very slowly. It went up above us, and then it followed us for a long time. It finally disappeared and our radar went back to normal."

"That same night, nine B-29's over Pyongyang reported seeing UFOs," he said.

Later, the Los Angeles Times reported the sightings.

Gaddes' wartime experiences seasoned him - fast.

"I had to grow up in a hurry," he said. "You see airplanes crash, you see people die ... I saw that happen. And you sort of grow up."

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