Veterans honour RAAF legend in Korea

July, 2001

The Korea tour's war veterans and organisers gather with the Department for Veterans' Affairs Minister, Mr Bruce Scott in front of the Memorial Gate at the National Cemetery in Seoul.
Royal Australian Air Force legend was made in the skies above Korea and the veterans returning to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Korean War fondly recalled it.

It was here that 77 Squadron established its fierce fighting reputation. The Squadron's trusty Mustangs flew the first combat missions above Korea just seven days after the commencement of hostilities on 25 June 1950.

The Squadron was redirected from Japan, where it was located for four and a half years as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. No. 77 Squadron was the first Commonwealth Air Force unit to arrive in Korea and the personnel were the first Australians into action.

The Mustangs provided the UN with long-range strike capability, with the ground attack missions proving instrumental in the early mission to prevent North Korean ground movements.

In 1951 when the Mustangs were replaced with the Meteor jets, the Squadron's pilots quickly made the transition from strike to air combat, becoming one of the first air forces to gain air combat experience early in the jet age.

This versatility was one of the hallmarks of the Squadron's involvement in the conflict, but it was a reputation earned at considerable cost.

Mr Toby Ralston and LACW Sarah Lawler share a few words in Pusan at the first commemorative ceremony. Each of the 21 nations involved in the conflict laid wreaths of remembrance to their fallen.

Among the first of the casualties was the Squadron's Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Lou Spence, DFC. For his widow, Mrs Vernon Hillman, OAM, returning to Korea concluded a memory that started on a day like any other some 50 years ago.

With the Squadron still flying out of its home base in Japan in the early days of the war, it was an anxious wait each day for the wives of pilots. On 9 September 1950, WGCDR Spence did not return.

He was killed in action near Pusan in southern Korea while leading a low-level diving attack. Mrs Hillman was also able to visit his grave for the first time after the Commonwealth Commemorative Ceremony at the UN Cemetery in Pusan.

The task of commanding the Squadron then fell to Squadron Leader Richard Cresswell, DFC, who guided it through several difficult transitions, including its introduction to the jet age.

While it is the pilots who have become the stuff of legends for their feats in Korea, the veterans were quick to remember the 'other' RAAF heroes - those on the ground.

According to Mr Cresswell, the effort of the ground crew during the conflict was essential to the Squardon's success in the skies.

Another pilot, Les Reading, DFC, who had the honour of flying the last Mustang mission and the first Meteor jet mission for the RAAF, summed it up. 'They had absolute guts and dedication; they worked non-stop under all conditions; they were the crux of the team.'

That team lost 41 pilots killed in action during the conflict. It was this sacrifice and the service of all those RAAF personnel who contributed that was best remembered by the veterans during their return.

By CAPT Belinda Byrne
Photographs by CPL Kevin Piggott