MASH — Memories of a Korean War Helicopter Pilot

This story first ran in the September 2019 issue of Warbirds.

Richard Kirkland had always wanted to fly. It was a dream he’d had since he was a young boy building models in California. During World War II, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and flew P-47s and P-38s for the 49th Fighter Group in the Southwest Pacific. During his 104 combat missions he flew with Richard Bong and Charles Lindbergh. He experienced good times and bad, including the mission where he lost his friend Lt. George Haniotis.

After the war ended he had visions of flying some of the new cutting-edge jets — aircraft with glamorous names like Sabre and Shooting Star. Instead, he was assigned to fly rescue helicopters. In the early 1950s the helicopter was still in its infancy. A few had made an appearance during the last days of World War II. Now they would be tested on the front lines in Korea. “I wasn’t pleased at first, but after I started flying the helicopter, I really loved it,” Richard said. “I also believed in the mission that the helicopter could play. Saving lives — the opposite of what I did as a fighter pilot.”

Richard had no idea that he would end up piloting the helicopter in such an important role. One day a helicopter arrived at McChord Air Force Base for a display. His commanding officer ordered that the helicopter be pickled and then hidden away behind all the “real aircraft.” Although many thought it was a strange contraption, Richard was somehow attracted to the odd craft. He then decided to apply for helicopter training and was assigned to the U.S. Air Force Helicopter School in Waco, Texas. “I had wanted fighters, and now I was stuck in what they had nicknamed the windmill. I also assumed that learning to fly the helicopter would be a cakewalk for a fighter pilot. I was wrong.”

He would eventually be assigned to the 5th Air Force, 3rd Air Rescue Squadron. Their base consisted of a few small tents, four pilots, and two Sikorsky R-5 helicopters. It wasn’t much to look at, but by the end of the war they would be responsible for saving thousands of lives. They were stationed close to the front, and their longest missions took them deep into enemy territory. The helicopters they flew carried no guns; they were equipped only with exterior pods and stretchers to take wounded out of the battlefield. When a soldier was wounded in combat, he was treated by a medic. From there the wounded might go to an aid station. If a wounded soldier was in bad enough shape, the helicopter was called in. Once loaded onto the pods of a chopper, the wounded were flown to a MASH (mobile army surgical hospital) unit.

A MASH unit consisted of a series of tents and buildings that could be easily relocated. As the front lines moved, the MASH units moved with them. The strategy was to keep the units as close to the front as possible. In past conflicts, wounded soldiers often had to wait hours to be treated. Thanks to the MASH units and the helicopters that brought in the wounded, the wait time was reduced to minutes. This is where amazing men and women worked together to save lives.

“Inside the OR were four or five tables where the surgeons would work,” Richard said. “There were times that they would get so jammed up in the OR that there would be patients everywhere.” The victories in a MASH unit were not scored on the battlefield, but instead in the number of lives they saved. Once a wounded soldier arrived at a MASH unit, his chance of surviving rose dramatically. Once a patient was stabilized at a MASH unit, he could be shipped out to a more conventional hospital in Tokyo.

It wasn’t long before Richard’s feelings about the helicopter were forever changed. Shortly after he arrived at the 3rd Air Rescue Squadron, the men who had been there before him started to talk about the important role they had in saving lives. “They were very proud of the work they were doing,” Richard said. “They were pushing themselves and the aircraft to their limits. Their motto was ‘That Others May Live.’ And they lived and died by that.”

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The pilots tended to rotate to a few different stations that flew different missions. The seasoned pilots had developed a set of techniques to better their chances of completing their missions and shared their wisdom with Richard to prepare him for his first mission. “We would get as close as we could but try to stay away from the fighting the best we could. We would stay low and fly up canyons whenever possible.”

On one of his first nights in Korea, he was introduced to many of the doctors and nurses he worked with at the 8055th MASH. It was there that Richard became friends with two men who would come to inspire a pair of classic television characters. “I was introduced to a few of the surgeons there. One of them shook hands with me and said, ‘They call me Hawkeye. Welcome to MASH. The M stands for ‘mud,’” Richard explained. “The story was that Hawkeye earned his nickname because of his surgical skills. A lot of the tough cases would go to him. I watched him do some amazing surgeries, and I always felt that he lived up to his nickname. He was quick-witted, very much like the character on the show. Once, while getting ready to perform a serious operation, he winked at me and said, ‘Okay, time me.’ Capt. Michael Johnson was another doctor who shared a tent with him. He was the basis for the character Trapper John on the show. Their jokes, banter, and pranks were pretty well represented in the show.”

The time soon came for Richard’s first evac flight. The call came in early in the morning. Capt. Enderton soon said, “Okay, Kirkland, you are up.” Richard made his way to the phone and answered, “8055th MASH.” The reply on the other end was static-filled. “We have wounded on spot 19 in Zebra sector.” After a brief search on the map, he spotted where they wanted him. “Get here as soon as you can,” the voice on the phone yelled. Richard scrambled to get ready. The sun had not yet come up and the temperatures were still below freezing. Enderton asked, “Are you okay? Do you want me to go with you?” “No,” Richard replied.

“I had survived the orientation flight and flew missions in World War II. I was sure I could fly a helicopter a few miles up the road and back.” As Richard prepared for the flight, the sun was just starting to rise. As he walked out to the helipad, he passed Hawkeye. “Hey, what are you doing out here so early?” Richard asked. “Oh, I just love early strolls to look at the beautiful sights of Korea,” Hawkeye remarked as he pointed to a bombed-out bridge.

“As I arrived at the helipad the ground crew were just prying open the doors of the chopper,” Richard said. “They had been frozen shut. I began to crank the engine as my medic came out and climbed in. I had to wait for the engine to reach takeoff temperatures. As I sat there bundled up, I remembered flying missions in the Southwest Pacific in the P-38 with just short sleeves.”

As they climbed out on a heading for spot 19, the sun had now come up, and it looked like it would be a bright, clear day. As they neared the landing zone (LZ), Richard heard his medic over the headsets say, “We are taking fire.”

“I saw tracers going by the canopy,” Richard said. “The medic said that we had taken some hits, but the helicopter was flying fine. I was using both hands to fly and had to still look at the map from time to time, all while being fired at.”

In the fog of combat, Richard lost track of where he was. It took him a few minutes to straighten himself out and fly to the landing site. Once there, he was met by a sergeant holding a carbine and with grenades clipped to his uniform.

“As the patient was being loaded, the sergeant, who was tired, haggard, and dirty, asked me to take good care of him,” Richard said. “We lifted off and headed back to the 8055th. As we approached, on the horizon I could see a small city of tents. There was smoke coming from their chimneys. I landed on the helipad and was met by the medical team.”

Once the choppers arrived with their wounded, the medical teams unloaded the patients and prepared them for surgery. “There were times when the medical personnel were overloaded, so the pilots would help bring in the wounded and even help the doctors with instruments from time to time.”

Richard checked back in with his fellow pilots, who were concerned that he had taken longer than normal. They made their way over to the mess tent and tried to eat some of the powdered eggs and coffee before they froze. “Suddenly, someone came in and grabbed Hawkeye and said, ‘We are losing him.’ Hawkeye left and ran to the OR.” Someone then told Richard that it was the soldier he had flown in. “Suddenly I started to feel responsible.”

After waiting for some time and then asking around, Richard was told he could head over and see how the wounded soldier he brought in was doing. He walked in through the door in the OR and saw Hawkeye. “He knew right away why I was there. He just shook his head. His voice had changed from its normal jovial tone to a serious one,” Richard remembered. Hawkeye said, “I’m sorry, Richard. I did everything I could. We didn’t lose him because of anything you did. His wounds were just too severe. We try like hell not to lose anyone, and trust me, when we do, it feels like someone has kicked us in the gut. You just have to remember that we save far more than we lose.”

The next day would be a busy one for the folks of the 8055th. One of the main roads from the battlefield to the MASH units was cut off. All wounded would have to be flown in. And in the middle of all that, the 8055th was on a bug-out alert — meaning that they might have to move the whole base. On one of Richard’s next runs, his medic spotted an ambulance whose drivers were frantically waving. They landed and found out that they had tried to get their patients out of the combat zone and had broken an axle in the process. Richard was able to fly the wounded back, but he would have to return for the medics.

As he landed at the MASH unit, the stretcher carriers accidentally damaged a rotor blade, grounding the helicopter. A new blade was hours away. There was no way to return for the ambulance crew. He worried about them the entire time it took to get a new blade and install it. Eventually he took off in search of the ambulance. “I got out with my .45 cocked,” Richard said. “I approached the ambulance and found no one. They were gone. There was nothing more that I could do, so I flew over to the LZ and continued to pick up patients.” The helicopter pilots flew from sunup to sundown for the next few days. The medical personnel of the 8055th MASH operated around the clock for several days with no break. Later that night he found out that the ambulance crew was picked up by a passing truck and returned to its base.

Flying wounded to MASH units was not the only duty that Richard and the men of the 3rd Rescue Squadron had. They also flew the Sikorsky H-19 to rescue downed pilots in the famous MiG Alley. American pilots were often forced to fly their crippled jets over the ocean and bail out. The rescue efforts were coordinated between the rescue helicopter call sign “Pedro,” a radar station, and the aircraft or wingman of the aircraft in trouble. After they got near each other, the mayday pilot would eject. After parachuting down, they typically found themselves floating in a raft or life jacket waiting for help to come. That help would come in the form of the rescue helicopter.

Whereas in years past these aviators may have been lost, thanks to the new choppers of the 5th, they often came home. “Every time I picked up wounded or a downed aviator, I thought of my friend George. Even though there was no one there to save him, there would always be someone to save others in the future.”

Richard went from being less than pleased about his assignment to being proud of his role. Many felt that the helicopter pilot’s job was the most important role one could have. That was certainly reflected in the attitude of the fighter pilots as well. While at first they were not sure about the helicopter, the chopper’s lifesaving impact eventually became too vital to ignore.

“We were once dispatched on a mayday for an F9F Panther jet,” Richard said. “As we took off, the radar station advised us that the aircraft was damaged and trying to limp back to base. After a few minutes of discussion, the Panther pilot was able to make it home. We returned to base happy that the pilot made it back okay, but we were a little down that we did not really get to be in on the mission. Later that night we found out that the Panther pilot was Ted Williams the baseball player.”

While the missions were plenty busy in the daylight hours, the nights were usually pretty quiet because the helicopters were set up for daytime operations only. “There were times that we would fly right up to the final moments of daylight,” Richard said. “Sometimes the ground personnel would use flashlights to show you where to go. You wouldn’t want to fly at night and have lights because the enemy would see that and shoot at you.”

Many of the pilots and members of the MASH units relaxed and had a few drinks at night. “Hawkeye had a still in his tent. A bunch of us went over there and were enjoying some martinis. An aid station called the 8055th MASH and said that they had a soldier with a bad stomach wound and that he would not make it through the night.” Knowing that the helicopters didn’t fly at night, the aid station called asking if anyone could even try. “They knew we didn’t fly, but they told me that if we didn’t get him out of there to the MASH unit, he would die. I figured I should at least try. We had devised a plan that we thought would give us the best chance.”

The plan was not for the faint of heart.

“I would fly up the river for about 15 minutes. When I got close, the men on the ground would fire off a flare so that I could find them. The bad thing about this is that the enemy was very close. So they would know where we were, too.”

Richard walked out to his aircraft and saw that it was pitch-black outside — not the kind of condition he was used to flying in. As Richard arrived in the area where the ground troops told him they would be, he began to strain his eyes to look for any sign of them at all. He couldn’t see anything. “I stayed in the area searching and then decided that maybe the plan would not work,” Richard said. “I was starting to have my doubts. As I turned 180 degrees I spotted a flare. I found an area to land in not far from there, and soon we had the wounded man loaded on my pod. As I took off I went straight up, and as I cleared the trees the enemy opened up on me. I could see tracers shooting all around me. I was sure that the chopper was being riddled with holes.”

As Richard set his helicopter down on the helipad at the 8055th, he was met by Hawkeye. “Jesus,” he said, “how did you do that?” Richard replied, “I’m not sure, but where are the martinis?” Richard was sure that if he had told his CO that he took that flight he would have gotten in trouble or even been court-martialed. So he did his best to ignore what he’d done, and no one ever asked him about it.

What Richard did not realize at the time is that he was playing a major role in the history of the helicopter. The lessons and techniques learned in the battlefields of Korea would forge new lifesaving plans in civilian life back in the United States. The helicopter had proven itself in Korea as an air ambulance. Soon, medical companies would be formed in the United States to help save lives and carry people from accident scenes to hospitals in minutes.

The helicopter would come to be seen not as some crazy contraption, but as a lifesaving vehicle. In the next war, the helicopter would also prove to be a capable combat aircraft. For his part, Richard would go on to become a demonstration pilot at Hughes Aircraft, flying a variety of aircraft in that role.

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