Shoot­ing Blanks


Flight Journal - - CONTENTS - By Col. LaV­erne H. Grif­fin, USAF, Re­tired, as told to and writ­ten by James P. Busha

Top-Se­cret Cold War Recce Mis­sions

Right af­ter the war ended, I learned to fly in a Piper Cub be­fore I went into the Air Force. I started out in Stear­mans, even though they were phas­ing them out. They just lined us up ac­cord­ing to height, and the short­est one-third of the guys got into Stear­mans. I was happy be­cause I wanted to fly the Stear­man, and we got a lot more ac­ro­bat­ics than the guys in the AT-6 did. I even­tu­ally flew the P-51s at Wil­liams Field in Phoenix, Ari­zona. I was 19 years old and just hav­ing a ball, and it only got bet­ter from there be­cause they had the F-80 Shoot­ing Stars at Wil­liams Field. I was se­lected to go into a re­con­nais­sance squadron and flew the RF-80, which was a re­con­nais­sance ver­sion of the F-80, out at March Field in Cal­i­for­nia. I ac­tu­ally liked re­con work bet­ter than the fight­ers be­cause we were fly­ing all over the United States tak­ing pic­tures. The poor fighter boys would just go to the gun­nery range, shoot into the sand, and head back.

Learn­ing to Fly a Blow­torch and Shoot a Cam­era

We didn’t have a T-33 dual trainer to get us ready for the F-80, so they just gave us a blind­fold cock­pit check. You had to know where ev­ery switch was in that F-80, then they helped you fire it up and then said, “Go.” And of course, it had a 15-to-1 boost through the hy­draulic sys­tem, which we weren’t used to. Com­par­a­tively speak­ing, the P-51 is pretty heavy on the con­trols, and ev­ery­body that took off wob­bled on take­off for about five min­utes and then you slowly got used to it. We flew pho­tog­ra­phy mis­sions around Cal­i­for­nia, as­signed to make a mo­saic of a cer­tain area. Clyde East (WW II recce P-51 ace) was a flight com­man­der, and I was a sec­ond lieu­tenant when I came into the squadron. I liked him, and we called him “Hun­dred Per­cent East.” If you were on his wing on take­off, you bet­ter not be lag­ging be­cause you wouldn’t catch him. Most leads would give you a cou­ple per­cent in or­der to play with as a wing­man, but Clyde was full up on the throt­tle. By 1952, I had al­most 400 hours of recce time fly­ing around tak­ing pic­tures. And then in 1953, I went to Korea where I re­ceived my bap­tism by fire.

In April of 1953, I was sta­tioned at Kimpo, K-14, home of the 15th Tac­ti­cal Re­con­nais­sance Squadron, “The Cot­ton Pick­ers,” fly­ing RF-80s and RF-86s. We shared our base with Aussies, fly­ing Me­te­ors, and the 4th Fighter Group, fly­ing F-86s.

My early mis­sions were at the con­trols of a RF-80, fly­ing down rail­road tracks to see if the bridges were in­tact or de­stroyed and all sorts of other tar­gets. We usu­ally had a wing­man be­side us be­cause MiGs would come down from the north, and you had to have some­body look­ing out for you. Other times, when we went way up to the Yalu River, I’d have four F-86s es­cort­ing me. Our squadron call sign was “North Cape,” and I re­call one mis­sion where they called, “North Cape 14, you’re about to be bounced.” I put the RF-80 into a hard turn for home base and poured the coals to it. The wings start shak­ing, and all of a sud­den, my wing­man goes

zoom­ing right by me. He said, “Let’s get go­ing.” I coun­tered and said, “You get back there, and keep your eye out for MiGs!” Thank­fully, they never showed up.

“Honey­bucket” and “Ash­tray”

As recce pi­lots, we were not too happy go­ing up north in the RF-80s be­cause the MiGs could catch us quickly. We couldn’t get away from them, but an F-86 could out­run them all day long. Be­fore I got to Korea, the recce guys got per­mis­sion to go over to the base junk­yard, and they pulled an F-86A fuse­lage out. Af­ter care­ful ex­am­i­na­tion and some in­ge­nu­ity, they re­al­ized that it was fea­si­ble to in­stall a cam­era in the gun bay by re­mov­ing the lower pair of right-hand ma­chine guns and am­mu­ni­tion con­tain­ers. The cam­era was in­stalled hor­i­zon­tally, and the only way to take pho­tos was to shoot down through the nose us­ing a mounted 45-de­gree-an­gled mir­ror. The recce guys dubbed this new cre­ation the “Honey­bucket.” The Air Force even­tu­ally ac­cepted the ad hoc field mod­i­fi­ca­tion and di­rected North Amer­i­can Avi­a­tion to mod­ify sev­eral Sabres, re­mov­ing all guns. The new RF-86s were built un­der the pro­gram code name of “Ash­tray.” In or­der for our un­armed Sabres to blend in, the ground crews painted gun ports on the nose to fool en­emy MiGs.

We had three Ash­tray Sabres in the squadron, and man, they were great com­pared to the RF-80—ob­vi­ously, a lot faster, and at 38,000 feet, you push over, point it straight down, and you’re go­ing through the bar­rier. I loved the F-86; it was a real Cadil­lac. But the mis­sions we flew with them were an­other story. We called the new con­trap­tion a “dic­ing cam­era” be­cause, dur­ing World War II, the recce units came up with the name “dic­ing mis­sion.” You flew straight down at a tar­get—whether a train, air­field, or flak site—and be­cause the cam­era’s in the nose, you get a good pic­ture...if you sur­vived. They used to shake dice to see who would go out on these mis­sions be­cause no­body wanted to raise their hand. In Korea, I flew sev­eral of these dic­ing mis­sions, one of them div­ing right down into the bow­els of the dam on the Yalu River to see if the gen­er­a­tors were still work­ing. And of course, the flak was tremen­dous around those gen­er­a­tors. Right be­fore the end of the war, Vice Pres­i­dent Nixon vis­ited our base, and I briefed him on the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the RF-86. I think he un­der­stood my point when I told him the 86 was the only thing that could out run the MiGs.

Un­in­vited Guest

On the last day of the war, I flew an RF-86 mis­sion at 10:00 in the morn­ing. This was a topse­cret mis­sion, and ac­cord­ing to the terms of the ar­mistice, there could not be any new air­planes in­tro­duced into Korea af­ter the ar­mistice by ei­ther side. So we didn’t know what kind of air­planes the North Kore­ans had and where they had them. The plan was to send us into Manchuria, north of the Yalu River, to find out what the Chi­nese had at the bases up there. And my mis­sion was to pho­to­graph a place called Harbin and Kirin.

For pro­tec­tion, they sent me a guy from the 4th Fighter Group to be my wing­man. When I met him, I found out he’s got four MiGs to his credit and he wants one more re­ally bad. I called him “Wannabe” be­cause he wanted to be an ace re­ally bad. He’s got guns and I have a cam­era, and he said, “Now, Griff, if we get up there and get into a prob­lem, don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.” And I said, “Wannabe, if we get into trou­ble, I’m head­ing out at the speed of light be­cause I don’t have any guns.” And I know

I can get away from them be­cause the RFs are faster than the F-86 be­cause they are lighter and cleaner.

So we take off, with four drop tanks strapped to our wings: two 200-gal­lon ones and two 120-gal­lon tanks. As we climbed out, we

en­coun­tered an eight-tenths-bro­ken cloud deck. I got that E6B [cir­cu­lar slide rule] out try­ing to nav­i­gate, while fly­ing 300 miles to the bor­der at 40,000 feet, look­ing for the Yalu River. There’s a dis­tinc­tive bend in the river where I am sup­posed to cross, and I was just a lit­tle bit to the right of the river—not bad, eas­ily cor­rectable. We dropped our 200-gal­lon tanks be­cause we don’t want to leave any call­ing cards in Manchuria that say “Made in Cleve­land, Ohio.” It fi­nally cleared up as we crossed into Manchuria, and I be­gan tak­ing pho­tos. I got my tar­gets—air­fields and power plants— and thank­fully, no MiGs on my tail as we turned back into Korea, climb­ing through 47,000 feet. All of a sud­den, I can’t breathe, and I find out my oxy­gen is gone!

I made a huge mis­take early on in the flight and left the switch on 100 per­cent oxy­gen. So I grabbed my bailout bot­tle, which is a lit­tle bot­tle with 1,900 pounds of com­pressed oxy­gen in there. I fig­ure I’m go­ing to save and sip that oxy­gen un­til I get back be­cause I’m 300 miles from home, 47,000 feet, with no oxy­gen. At high al­ti­tude, that air­plane is very sen­si­tive, and I’m wig­gling around all over the sky, fly­ing with my knees while sip­ping mouth­fuls of oxy­gen. We were at ra­dio si­lence for se­cu­rity rea­sons, but my wing­man came on and said, “What’s the prob­lem?” I said, “Well, I’ve got a prob­lem with oxy­gen. I’ve got it taken care of.” So I’m let­ting down and I got to 11,000 feet, but I don’t want to go down too fast be­cause I don’t have a lot of gas. When we got to the base, we had less than 1,000 pounds of fuel, which is min­i­mum in an F-86. They put me in for the Sil­ver Star. I read the copy of it, but you can’t say much about a top-se­cret mis­sion on pa­per. Well, the pa­per­work got lost, and I never got even an air medal for that mis­sion, which was the long­est recce mis­sion of a sin­gle-en­gine air­plane dur­ing the Korean War. That was my 25th com­bat mis­sion.


They sent me down to Po­hang, K-3, by the sea to be on ex­change duty with the Marines, where Ted Wil­liams had been fly­ing out of. I flew a F2H-2P Ban­shee, which is a very nice air­plane. But six months later, I got called back to the Air Force, so my happy days with the Marines—and great food—were over. I moved to Nagoya Ko­maki,

Ja­pan, be­cause we were go­ing to get the new RF-86 “Hay­maker” air­planes. At the time, Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower wanted flight mis­sions into Rus­sia and China to see if their Tu-4 “Bull” bombers (the Soviet B-29 clone) had the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of de­liv­er­ing nu­clear weapons against NATO forces or the United States on a one-way mis­sion. We even had our own cover story: “We got lost.” It was a weak ex­cuse at best, es­pe­cially when you’re so far away from Ja­pan and wear­ing sur­vival “poopie suits” that kept you alive for 30 min­utes longer in cold water. Al­though it’s a weak cover story, when you’re 24 or 25 years old, you be­lieve it. You’re will­ing to take chances, and other peo­ple in the squadron were fight­ing to get these mis­sions.

The new RF-86 Hay­maker mod­els had a bulge on the side of the fuse­lage where the guns nor­mally were be­cause the cam­eras were big: K-22 40-inch-fo­cal-length cam­eras. In or­der to mount them ver­ti­cally, they had to put a lit­tle bulge on the side of the air­plane. The gun ports were painted on again and on the 22nd of March, 1954, I flew the first Hay­maker mis­sion over Rus­sia.

We plot­ted our course and knew how far it was go­ing to be, so we went up and we trained in and around Ja­pan, du­pli­cat­ing the same length to see how it would work out. The ac­tual es­ti­mated mis­sion time would be two hours and forty min­utes, with some fuel to spare. Sat­is­fied we could do it, we flew into Korea. Of course, we weren’t sup­posed to be in Korea be­cause we had these dif­fer­ent air­planes that weren’t there when the war was go­ing on. So we snuck into Korea the night be­fore with six RF-86 Sabres. Only four would go on the mis­sion, with two spares tag­ging along un­til we hit the Sea of Ja­pan. We put our jets in the hanger overnight, keep­ing them out of sight from any United Na­tions in­spec­tors and fu­eled them up to the max­i­mum ex­tent. We rolled them out in the morn­ing, tax­ied out to the run­way, and with ra­dios silent, we waited for a green light to launch. We took off from K-55, which was a 9,000-foot run­way in Korea, and headed out over the Sea of Ja­pan. By the time, we hit the 38th Par­al­lel, we were sup­posed to be above 40,000 be­cause they told us the Russian radar couldn’t see us above 38,000 feet. Did I be­lieve it? Did then, don’t now. But at any rate, we be­lieved it. So we climbed out

and dropped our 200-gal­lon tanks. The two spares diverted and went back to Ja­pan as the four of us on ra­dio si­lence headed for our tar­gets around Vladi­vos­tok.

Ten min­utes be­fore we got to Vladi­vos­tok, we split up with two guys go­ing 50 miles in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion over Rus­sia to a dis­tinc­tive tar­get as my wing­man and I headed for Vladi­vos­tok. The plan­ners pre­dicted there’d be no con­trails, and ob­vi­ously, if the weather pre­dic­tion was for con­trails, we wouldn’t go. We had code words for this flight if we ran into prob­lems. The other two Sabres used “Alabama,” and mine was “Cal­i­for­nia.” If you saw con­trails, one of use would yell “Alabama” or “Cal­i­for­nia.” Within 10 min­utes of Vladi­vos­tok, still out over the Sea of Ja­pan, my ra­dio si­lence was bro­ken with “Alabama.” My heart stopped, as I looked out to see if my guy’s pulling con­trails, and he wasn’t. So I know

I’m OK, but the other two guys must be pulling cons, so they aborted their flight. We took our pic­tures and headed over to our base at Mi­sawa, Ja­pan. And of course, there’s this big con­tin­gent of brass wait­ing for us there be­cause this was the first mis­sion. These guys are all wor­ried, I’m sure. So they meet us with a C-47, and they took the film out our air­planes and flew it down to Tokyo to be de­vel­oped.

The next morn­ing, Gen. Otto P. Wey­land, com­man­der of the Far East Air Forces, called us into his of­fice. We were still in our fly­ing suits, and when we walked in, he was sit­ting at a desk big­ger than a din­ing-room ta­ble. He stood up, smiled, and said, “Boys, that was a good job.” He came out and pinned a DFC [Distin­guished Fly­ing Cross] right on our fly­ing suits. And then he said, “I’ll take care of the pa­per­work later.” I think he was more re­lieved that we didn’t cre­ate any in­ter­na­tional in­ci­dents than he was of us get­ting the pic­tures.

I went back again on the 3rd of April and then flew my last Hay­maker on


the 22nd of April, go­ing back to the same area once again. And this time, as I’m coming out of Vladi­vos­tok at 42,000 feet headed for Mi­sawa, I saw a MiG 5,000 feet be­low me. I thought, “I won­der if he’s af­ter me?” We were kind of lim­ited with these RF-86 Hay­mak­ers be­cause the North Amer­i­can Avi­a­tion guys weren’t sure what would hap­pen with these bulges on the side if we hit Mach. It hadn’t been tested and ap­proved yet. I got a lit­tle ner­vous about that, es­pe­cially if a guy was on your tail be­cause you’re go­ing to be­come a test pi­lot if he does.

I watched this MiG be­low me for a while, and he’s just go­ing along in the same di­rec­tion, like he’s on a Sun­day drive. So I flick over the top of him and hit that ex­tra-pic­ture switch—the one on the trig­ger. I bug out and head for home, and when I get down to John­son Air Base, the photo in­ter­preter comes out and says, “You know what you got there?” And I said, “Well, I got my pic­tures, I hope.” He said, “You got the pic­tures, but the MiG…” I said, “Oh, a MiG-15 flew un­der me. I took his pic­ture.” He said, “That was no MiG-15. That was a MiG-17.” We didn’t even know they had those east of the Ural Moun­tains, which are way back in Rus­sia some­where—Siberia, I guess. So I got what we called a “happy snap,” and it be­came a big in­tel­li­gence find. The prob­lem was that MiG-17 has an af­ter­burner. And then it hit me like a cold slap: In the pic­ture, there were two MiGs. They were fly­ing tac­ti­cal for­ma­tion, so I didn’t see the one that was right un­der me. I only saw the one that was down to the left. Had they seen me, I doubt I would be here telling you this story. That was my last Hay­maker mis­sion and then I ro­tated back to the States.

Col. Grif­fin con­tin­ued to fly recce mis­sions, in­clud­ing ones in Viet­nam, where he flew 152 day and night com­bat mis­sions in the RF-4C Phan­toms as com­man­der of the 14th Tac­ti­cal Re­con­nais­sance Squadron in Udorn, Thai­land. He re­tired from ac­tive duty in May 1974.

Col. LaV­erne Grif­fin’s old recce hel­met. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

The F-86 Sabre is well known as the Korean game changer for the United States, but it is less known for the long-range re­con flights it ac­com­plished. (Photo by John Dibbs/ planepic­

Pi­lots of the March 1954 over­flight mis­sions to Vladi­vos­tok, USSR: (stand­ing, left to right) Lt. Sam Dick­ens; Lt. Pete Gar­ri­son; Maj. LaV­erne Grif­fin, com­man­der of the 15th TRS; Maj. Ge­orge Say­lor; Lt. Bill Bissett; and Lt. Larry Gar­ri­son. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

MiG-17 be­low! One of the “lucky shots” Col. Grif­fin cap­tured on his Hay­maker flights. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

An RF-4 Phan­tom was one of the last recce types flown by Col. Grif­fin. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

Pi­lots shar­ing a laugh af­ter their over­flight: (left to right) LaV­erne Grif­fin, Maj. Ge­orge Say­lor (on wing), and Lt. Pete Gar­ri­son. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

LaV­erne Grif­fin (sec­ond from left) dur­ing his days as a cadet. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

Above: A RF-86F cock­pit. The RF-86 had no gun­sight be­cause it had no guns. (Photo by Brian Sil­cox) Be­low: Pi­lots of the 15th TRS pose in front of an Ash­tray, RF-86 Sabre. Note the painted-on gun ports. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

The P-51 Mus­tang was a just a step­ping-stone for Col. Grif­fin as he moved into F-80s and F-86 jets. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

Col. Grif­fin in front of an RF-4C in Thai­land. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

LaV­erne Grif­fin (right) con­fers with Vice Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon about the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the Ash­tray, RF-86 Sabre. (Photo cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

Above: En­larged view of Russian Tu-4 “Bull” bombers (re­verse-en­gi­neered B-29s) taken from a Hay­maker flight. Be­low: Col. Grif­fin, wear­ing his orig­i­nal hel­met, reac­quaints him­self with an old friend. (Pho­tos cour­tesy of James P. Busha)

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