The Saturday Evening Post July 21,1951
One of the deadliest pilots flying
against the Red invader is an ordained minister. A Post editor reports
on this gaunt, tireless man of God dedicated to faith and the task of
blasting Communists with bombs and fire.
SOMEWHERE IN KOREA. No lightnings struck him and
no thunders shook him, and no voices spoke to him out of a cloud. The
idea unfolded slowly. Flying his light plane over the open fields of
Ohio, feeling the winds buffet him as he raced the thunderheads across
the sky, Dean Elmer Hess, while a youngster still in college, thought
about God a lot, and somehow, flying and religion got all mixed up together
in his mind. So he painted on his plane the Latin phrase, Per Fidem
Volo - By Faith I Fly - and set out to study for the ministry.
By the time he was twenty-three, a slim, solemn,
Gregory Peckish-looking fellow, he was an ordained minister of the Disciples
of Christ, a sect of the Campbellite faith, earnestly interpreting the
Word to tiny congregations of his church in the little towns of Northern
Ohio. Today, at thirty-three, with "By Faith I Fly" now scrawled in
Chinese characters on his Mustang fighter-bomber, he is one of the deadliest
killers of the Korean war, a lean, gaunt, but strangely tireless pilot
wholly dedicated to the task of blasting Chinese and Red Koreans with
bombs and bullets, rockets and napalm.
Yet he is still a devoutly religious man, who reads
his Bible every night and suffers considerable anguish of spirit when,
coming down in a roaring dive, he sees his tracers tearing into the
enemy below. He has a deep fear of killing a noncombatant - an old man,
a woman or a child - and his serial attacks are therefore never made
in haste. When he sees movement on the ground that may he enemy, he
swoops low for a close look. Civilians, terror-stricken, will merely
stand and gape at him, but soldiers in disguise among them, trained
to take cover, will run or dive headlong for the ditches along the road.
So he pulls up in a steep climb and comes in again, lacing the ditch
banks with fire or blasting the running men. It is a sorrow to him to
see the smoke and flames of burning villages marking the route where
other flights have passed, and he will not fire-bomb a cluster of thatched
huts unless he is sure that the enemy is using it for a hiding place.
On the ground there are always children around him, and he and the tough
pilots of his unit, Craigwell and Metcalf, Wilson and Gillespie and
Don Erickson, are the main supporters of an orphanage where nearly 800
homeless children have found refuge. By the help he gives the children
he feels he compensates a little for the enormous suffering caused the
innocent in this war.
Yet, paradoxically, for all his compassion he is
always experimenting, trying to find more deadly ways to hurt the enemy.
One of the most dreadful weapons ever used in war is the napalm bomb,
a tank of jellied gasoline which bursts on striking and sears everything
it touches. Hess is now trying to figure a way to rig up a napalm tank
so that it will burst above the earth and spray a wide area below with
a fountain of fire.
His exploits in the war are a source of great pride
to the 5th Air Force, with which he maintains a somewhat tenuous official
relationship, but some of his unorthodox administrative activities have
caused his superiors to despair. Actually, he is not supposed to be
flying combat at all. The organization which he commands as a lieutenant
colonel is officially an air-base unit, a housekeeping organization
whose primary function is to provide housing and logistic support for
a fighting squadron. But its main duty, for which it has no well-defined
authority, is to train the pilots of the South Korean Air Force. The
organization has not kept house for anybody but itself since the early
days of the war, and Hess, and the somewhat pixilated American crew
which he commands, train the Korean pilots by leading them into combat.
"What's the use," Hess asks,
"of teaching a man flight procedures, navigation and gunnery in dry
runs over the rear areas when you can head him the other way and in
five minutes he'll be learning the same things in action against a live
Pursuing this theory of on the job training for
his Korean pilots, Hess has flown more than 250 combat missions out
here, more, it is believed, than the total of any fighter-bomber pilot.
Five of his Korean pilots have been killed, either as a result of enemy
ground fire or operational crashes, and each of his American colleagues
has either been shot down, has had to jump from a crippled plane or
has cracked up landing on some of the bumpy cow-pasture fields from
which the Hess outfit consistently flies.
Hess himself, though his plane has often been struck
by small-arms fire, has never been scratched and he seems to have no
fear that his luck will ever run out.
"Whatever happens," he says philosophically,
"will be God's will."
The legend of the Flying Preacher began in the last
war, when Hess, a Thunderbolt pilot, won a Distinguished Flying Cross
for attacking a German flak position, thereby drawing fire away from
his comrades while they assaulted a convoy. As a minister, his draft
board classified him 4-D, which exempted him from military service.
Dissatisfied with this, he had volunteered for pilot training, over
the protests of the leaders of his church, his family and his friends,
who did not feel that a man of the cloth should enter a service in which
he would be required to kill.
"I thought about it a long time,"
Hess said later. "To me, though, this was a battle between good and
evil, and it would be morally wrong for me to say to others, 'I believe
in your cause, but you do the killing for me. My conscience won't let
me get blood on my own hands.' "
The presence among them of the quiet flier who read
the Scriptures, went to chapel every Sunday, did not drink, smoke or
cuss, and who upon occasion would chide his colleagues for chasing mademoiselles,
cast something of a pall over the hell-for-leather extroverts of Hess'
"It was embarrassing, at first,"
Hess said. "They called me 'Parson,' or 'Preacher,' said 'Sir' to me,
though I was just a captain, and they'd try not to swear or tell dirty
jokes in front of me. They would put on goodly airs when I was around.
It was pretty painful."
Realizing that his presence made the others uncomfortable,
Hess, a shy man by nature, drew more and more into himself, concentrating
on his flying with an almost fanatic zeal. As his missions piled up,
he got to the point where he did not want to write letters, talk or
otherwise relax. He'd just lie in his bunk, waiting time to take off
again. To the flight surgeon this was a sign of an approaching crack-up
from combat fatigue, and he finally persuaded Hess that perhaps he should
forget the war for one night and go into town to see the sights and
take a snort or two.
Hess went, accompanied by the whole squadron, and
drank a bottle of champagne in a dozen hasty gulps. This did relax him
considerably, for about an hour, but his innate distrust of such beverages
would not permit him to drink more, and he soon felt merely sleepy.
So he sat by, watching, while the rest of the squadron made merry until
about two A.M., when he herded them into the back of a truck and solemnly
drove them back to base, singing with great fervor a mildly idiotic
song which went: "We are the joy boys of radio! Hello, hello, hello."
Hess has not entirely spurned spirits since that
date, but like most men who do not like the taste of alcohol, he eschews
hard liquor and prefers the highly flavored and colored liqueurs. An
Air Force chaplain who left a jug of Communion wine in Hess' care came
back a few weeks later to find it empty. Hess had found the flavor pleasing.
He has also modified his earlier austerity in other
minor ways, and now, when deeply moved, is likely to utter a moderate
"damn," though his casual conversation is still almost completely free
of expletives. A happily married man and the father of two, he has in
no respect relaxed his guard where females are concerned, and when the
Korean officers give a party for their American colleagues, complete
with girls for dancing purposes, Hess retires to a corner, taking no
part in the hilarity.
After his night out with the boys, Hess' relationship
with his comrades underwent a subtle change, and soon they accepted
him as one of them, taking a sort of affectionate pride in his piety.
Hess, when he came to Korea, decided he'd make no mention of his ministerial
background, fearing it might inhibit his new associates as at first
it had embarrassed his comrades in Europe. His secret soon became known,
though. At Taegu, in company with several officers of his new command,
he bumped into two pilots of his old Thunderbolt squadron.
"Preacher! You old son of a bitch!"
they bellowed jovially, slapping him on the back.
Hess, mustered out after World War II, decided that
he would like to teach as well as preach, and he began to prepare himself
for such a combined career. He took his master-of-arts degree in European
history at the University of Ohio, and had transferred to Ohio State
to work on his doctorate when the Air Force called him back to duty
as a personnel officer, traveling about the country trying to persuade
bright young graduates to enter the flying service. When he finished
this recruiting job, he was sent to Japan in normal rotation and was
an information-and-education officer there when the Korean war broke
out, spending his spare time reading ponderous books on European history.
Here in Korea, good and evil were again in mortal
struggle, and he wanted to get into the fighting, even though he had
not been in the cockpit of a fighter for years. When his formal request
for transfer to combat duty was turned down, he laboriously pecked out
on a typewriter a dozen or so copies of this message: "I volunteer for
hazardous duty in Korea."
For three mornings running he slipped this needling
reminder in among the letters on his superior officer's desk, until
his commander, harassed beyond endurance, released him.
Three days later, somewhat bewildered, Hess found
himself at the dusty airfield in Taegu, commanding something called
Bout I, an organization of some half-dozen pilots and 100-odd enlisted
men, all of whom had volunteered for "hazardous duty." Bout I's job
was to support the embryonic South Korean Air Force, an organization
of some 1500 colonels and enlisted men built around a flying organization
of a dozen-odd Korean pilots who had learned to fly under the Japanese.
Most had had no experience in anything heavier than a Zero, but, with
a fine Oriental fatalism, they had gone back to Japan, and there, after
a few days of instruction conducted mainly by signs and gestures, had
checked out in the Mustang, a hard-mouthed, unstable gun platform which
requires a precise and confident hand at the controls. After one take-off
and a wobbly landing, they had come to Taegu with ten of these craft,
the gift of the Far East Air Forces, to fly combat against the enemy.
Their start was not auspicious. On his first mission,
their ace, Colonel Lee, who claimed twenty-three American kills in a
Zero in the Pacific war made a diving attack on a tank from 1200 feet,
attempting a split-S recovery. This favorite Jap maneuver was simple
for the nimble Zero, but the heavy Mustang needed more sky room and
it plowed into the tank head on.
Lee's quick demise greatly lowered the morale of
the other Korean pilots, and for a while Hess put them in light planes.
They would go up with a thirty-pound bomb between their knees which
they would drop over the side whenever they spotted an enemy tank. To
Hess this was a valiant enterprise, but essentially fruitless, so, ignoring
an order which said that American pilots could not fly in aircraft bearing
Korean markings, he picked the four best Koreans of his group and began
to lead them in combat flights in the Mustangs. They were tense, nervous
and unsure of themselves, and Hess in flight would resort to various
little tricks to relax them. Pretending that flying the Mustang was
no strain at all, he would lean back in the cockpit with his hands behind
his head and his feet up on the instrument panel, yawning in a bored
manner. His helmet was a little too large, and he found that by turning
his head quickly it would remain facing forward while he was looking
at his wingman over his shoulder. He would also lay an imaginary horse
pistol over his forearm and pretend to be shooting at them, like the
hero of the cowboy pictures they saw at night in camp. These things
amused the Koreans and caused them to relax, and before they knew it,
Hess had led them into the target and was heading home again.
After about ten missions, with his Koreans getting
better every day, an outfit of American pilots arrived from the Philippines
ahead of their airplanes and took over the Mustangs given to the Koreans.
Hess' Korean Air Force was grounded. This distressed him, for by now
he had developed a warm affection and a great respect for the little
brown men who flew with him. So he persuaded Maj. Gen. Edward Timberlake,
vice-commander of the 5th Air Force, to let him take his Koreans to
another airfield as soon as their planes were restored to them. Timberlake,
who loves a fighting flier, agreed to this, and Hess' outfit, now designated
as the 6146th Air Base Unit took off for a forlorn cow pasture near
the town of Sachon, much closer to the fighting than Taegu. Unfortunately,
within hours after the first elements arrived, sniper fire began to
crack around their heads, and they hastily packed up their gear, which
at the moment consisted of three tents and two salvaged stoves that
Hess' exec, a fabulous scrounger named Bellovin, had found in a junk
pike, and took off for Chinju.
Hess knew nothing of this until, attempting to land
at Sachon later in the afternoon, he saw the field deserted and the
spark of small-arms fire winking up at him from the ground. He flew
north until he saw the battered Korean trucks carrying his men clunking
hastily up the road and flew cover over them until they reached Chinju.
He then went back to Taegu, landed, stole a new radio jeep and then,
with his conscience twinging slightly, took off by road to find his
force. Though an excellent aerial navigator, he is no homing pigeon
on the ground, and he wandered for two days over mountain roads before
he finally found Chinju, three hours by road from Taegu.
Chinju was unsafe, too, and Bellovin meanwhile had
led the crew south to Chinhae, on the coast, where, beside a tiny airstrip,
stood a number of flea-infested Quonset huts. No pilot other than one
sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust would have considered
flying Mustangs from this strip, for a Mustang, the book says, needs
3200 feet of runway, and the Chinhae strip was 1500 feet of undulating
concrete, plus 1200 feet of rocky grassland, pocked with holes. One
end of the strip ended at the sea, the other at a fifteen-foot drop
into a rice paddy. The unit had no chow, no soap, no communication with
5th Air Force, no tools except two pairs of pliers and a screwdriver,
and no friendly troops nearby to protect them from the Reds, who were
driving hard from the west.
"It was fine," Hess said later.
"We were right up close to the fighting, where a support unit ought
to be, and we were completely on our own."
So he dispatched Bellovin in the trucks fifty back-breaking
miles to Pusan to get supplies, and himself drove back to Taegu to bring
in the first Mustang. He came in low, from the sea toward the mountain,
hovering just above a stall, and somehow managed to get the plane on
the ground intact. He was hardly on the ground when a light plane from
the 25th Division fluttered in. A combat team of the 25th was trapped
up the road, the pilot said. Could Hess fly a strike?
All Hess had was ammunition for his wing guns, but
he went. Diving so low among the circling hills that the troops on the
ground could see the shine of the sun on his golden helmet, he poured
the fire from his .50-calibers into the enemy roadblock. When his ammo
was gone, he continued to dive, like a stingless wasp, making the Reds
keep their heads down while the combat team ran the blockade to safety.
Riflemen of the 25th still remember the lone plane
that for days thereafter always appeared when they were in trouble,
lashing the hills with rockets and .50-caliber. Sometimes he'd fly six
to eight missions a day. He grew thin and haggard, speckled, at one
time, with 238 fleabites. But he never tightened up, never showed signs
of nervous strain. He became the 25th's one-man Air Force, and the 25th
supplied him with food and ammunition. It was not good ammo, for ground-force
.50-caliber burns hotter in the tube than aircraft ammunition. But he
made it do. The Navy and Marines provided him, inadvertently, with rockets.
Planes from the carriers, with a hung rocket on their wings would put
in at Chinhae to remove it before going back to the flat-tops, and Hess'
armorers would grab these missiles and hang them on his plane. An occasional
crippled jet came in to belly-land and Hess would salvage the guns from
Between missions Hess would hitchhike up to Taegu
to ferry down other Mustangs, so that his Korean pilots could start
flying again. Hal Wilson, a public-information officer, came down to
do a story on Hess, who by now was becoming something of a legend, and
forgot to go back. By the time he was discovered missing from his desk
at 5th Air Force, he had flown fifty-five combat missions in Mustangs,
though he was a twin-engine pilot by trade.
To enable his Koreans to fly from Chinhae, Hess
worked out a complicated shuttle system. The Koreans could take off
from the short strip, but they couldn't land, so when Hess and an American
would fly a strike with Kim and Chong, the two Koreans would return
to the big airstrip at Taegu. Hess and Wilson, Craigwell, Crowell, Mel
Jackson or Jimmy Means would land at Chinhae, pick up a light trainer
there and fly to Taegu, where they would turn the light planes over
to the Koreans, and then fly the Mustangs home themselves.
They flew this way all through July and August,
until the landing at Inchon came and the war moved north. Hess followed
it. He loaded his people and gear on a verminous and rust-encrusted
LST he had borrowed from the Korean Navy. Refugees swarmed aboard with
all their duffel, and the craft, a floating hencoop, trudged slowly
through the Yellow Sea to where the proud, sleek ships of the UN forces
lay at anchor in Inchon harbor. The sight of this floating sty caused
much mirth among the sailors, and they hooted and gibed merrily as the
LST labored past. They didn't know there were any Americans aboard until,
as the LST passed the Missouri, from which the loudest raillery was
coming, one of Hess' sergeants stepped to the rail.
"When'd you swab-jockeys get
that old tub off the mudbank?" he inquired coarsely. A great silence
fell on the Missouri.
The base commander at Inchon did not welcome Hess'
outfit with warmth. "Okay," he said, "you can fly off here, but the
first time you people crack up and block the runway, I'll see to it
your whole damn outfit is grounded."
Murmuring the ministerial equivalent of "Nuts to
you, Joe," Hess moved his people to another cow pasture, a bombed-pocked
dirt strip on the outskirts of Seoul. Here the grass was five feet tall
on the gullied field, but Hess, while the fighting still raged in the
city, went in and recruited 1000 men and women, armed with spades and
sickles. They cut the tall grass and filled in the ditches, and before
the last huge pile of hay was removed from the cleared strip, the planes
were already circling in the landing pattern.
Here at Seoul, Hess first began to hate the Reds
with an implacable hate. In the tall grass of the field his workers
found the bodies of thirty-odd South Koreans, killed by the enemy.
"One group was a family," Hess
said. "An old mamma-san and papa-san, a younger woman that must have
been their daughter, with a tiny baby on her back, a boy about twelve
and a girl maybe eight. Each of these had been shot through the head
with a pistol. Even the baby. Up to now, I guess I'd just hated the
idea of communism. After that, I hated the Reds themselves." Hess had
his troubles as his planes flew from this field. Soldiers would halt
his trucks coming from the port at Inchon and take the cargo from his
Korean drivers. Supply officers at other airstrips would refuse to service
his planes with gas when, returning low in fuel, they put down at a
"To find a parking place, just
circle the block and you will see the car ahead pulling into it." Quote
from Will C. Jones
A mess sergeant refused to serve one of Hess' sergeants,
Hong, an American-born soldier of Korean parentage, until Hong, in perfect
Army English, called him a knuckleheaded so-and-so and threatened to
climb over the table and break his nose. Bellovin, the exec, scrounged
valiantly. Hess' trucks made moonlight raids on Navy ordnance dumps,
coming back with rockets and bombs. Somehow a large generator appeared
mysteriously to serve Hess' outfit with electric lights. It was closely
followed by an Army colonel in high dudgeon.
"He was very angry," Hess said
afterward. "But we soothed him. We traded him an old motorcycle, also
stolen, for his generator."
As the fighting moved north, Hess moved his people
with it, tucking up under the tail feathers of the frontline troops,
hacking out new airfields from grass-grown strips wherever necessary.
Some were supposedly unusable for Mustangs.
"You can't put a Fifty-one down
there," General Timberlake told him when he asked to go to a dirt strip
"I put one down there this morning,
sir," Hess grinned.
"When's the last time your people
had fresh food?" General Partridge, CO of the 5th Air Force, asked Hess
Hess figured back, "Around the fourth of July,"
he said. "We scrounged two crates of lettuce."
The next day a C-47 landed, loaded with apples,
oranges, fresh eggs, fresh meat, lettuce and tomatoes.
As the Chinese offensive began, Hess took on an
interest other than his ceaseless flying and fighting. From the streets
of Seoul the military had gathered more that 800 starving, homeless
children, orphaned by the war. They had placed them in orphanages in
Seoul, and now, with the Chinese rushing south, something had to be
done about them. Hess helped the Air Force chaplains set up the spectacular
"Operation Kiddy Car," that in a day moved all these little ones to
safety on Cheju Island, off the southern tip of the peninsula. Once
they were there, he did not forget them. Disturbing word reached him
that at Cheju, in the barren school building where the children were
housed, they lacked food and medicine, and many were dying. On his own
hook he sent his Korean Sergeant Hong down to check up. Hong's report
was grim. The two Korean administrators were squabbling, he said. The
kids were in poor shape. They needed everything - clothes, food, bedding,
medicine. Hess ordered Hong to make this same report to Syngman Rhee,
whom Hess had met often when flying from Chinhae.
Two days after Rhee got the word, the two original
administrators were in jail, and a Mrs. On Soong Whang, trained in orphanage
work in England, was in charge. But this, too, caused some friction.
The two original administrators were Christians, at least in name. Mrs.
Whang was a Buddhist. The Protestant chaplains didn't like the idea
of a Buddhist being in control of the youngsters. Mrs. Whang had also
fired some of the untrained Christian aides at the orphanage, for, she
said, at that moment the children needed love and care more than they
needed hymns. Hess backed her.
"Let's get these kids well of
their wounds, and fat and healthy and happy first. We can worry about
their souls later," he told the disgruntled chaplains.
Hess and his men now consider themselves to be godfathers
to all the children at the orphanage. All their PX supplies, all the
money they can spare, all the usable articles they can beg or steal
from other units, Capt. Don Erickson hauls to the orphanage in the Korean
Air Force's lone cargo plane. When it was discovered that a little fellow
could take only one mouthful of rice before he had to pass his spoon
on, because there weren't enough spoons to go around, Hess' people sent
to Japan and got 800 spoons. When only half the kids could go out to
play at a time because there weren't enough shoes, Hess and Craigwell,
Wilson and Gillespie, bought 300 pairs of the boat-shaped rubber shoes
the Koreans wear.
Now help is beginning to come from the States. Hess
and George Metcalf wrote home describing the orphanage - where a few
of the little children are half-Americans who cry "Daddy" when they
see a man in uniform and run to him with their arms up, hungry to be
held. Now Mary Hess, in Marietta, Ohio, and Elaine Metcalf, in Wheaton,
Illinois, are receiving packages to be sent on to Cheju-do, from people
all over the United States who have read about the orphanage. Hal Wilson's
girl friend, a WAC captain, wrote her mother in Denver, and now from
all over Colorado packages are beginning to come from the ladies of
the Order of the Eastern Star. Hess sent his outfit's Korean doctor
to Cheju for three months to stop a whooping-cough epidemic.
There are still many, many homeless children in
Korea. Each surge of the armies up and down the peninsula leaves more
of them wandering forlornly on the roads.
Hess and his people are continually picking them
up, keeping them in camp, clothing them, bathing them, feeding them
until they are chubby before sending them on to the orphanage. The Air
Force now has strict rules against such informal adoptions, but Hess
doesn't worry much about that.
"There are some rules," he told
an inspecting group doggedly, "that transcend the Air Force's rules.
One of them begins, 'Suffer the little children to come unto me-'"
And the Air Force, which at heart is about as soft
as Hess where little children are concerned, gave him the Legion of
Merit and let him go his way, a strange, gaunt, shabby figure in untidy
khakis that bear no mark of rank, fighting as hard as he knows how,
and then doing all in his power to help the innocent ones who have suffered
most in this relentless and impersonal war.
To the Koreans he is a hero, and they bring him
fruits and flowers. To the Air Force medical men he is a mystery. They
don't understand how he can fly day in and day out, into the teeth of
the flak that is now coming up in Korea, and still show no signs of
strain, the jumpy nervousness the doctors call an anxiety neurosis.
"He has within him," one flight
surgeon said, "some sort of psychological armor plate that seems to
protect him from all mental trauma."
Hess can describe that armor plate in simpler terms.
He calls it faith.