‘Pussy’ Gillan and ‘Dropkick’ over Korea : 77th Squadron in Korea
contributed by Michael Hall
In the aftermath of World War II the Korean peninsula was divided along the 38th Parallel into North Korea and South Korea. The communist North invaded the South in June 1950. In response, the United Nations Security Council resolved to support South Korea.
The United States began mobilising its forces and asked the Australian Government for air support from the 77th Fighter Squadron of the RAAF. The 77th Squadron was based at Iwakuni, just west of Hiroshima in Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force. The Australian Government agreed and by early July 77th Squadron were flying sorties over Korea.
77th Squadron formed in 1942 and had served in the South West Pacific campaign during WWII before arriving in Japan in 1946. The squadron flew Mustang fighter aircraft at that time. It used the call sign “Dropkick”.
Besides those already in Japan, a further twelve pilots were called up for service in Korea, all of whom were based at RAAF Station, Canberra (Fairbairn). Among the dozen were:
- Ross Coburn, Robert Hunt and Jack Murray (2 July 1950)
- Lyall Klaffer, who had only just been transferred from Canberra to Victoria to attend a flight instructor’s course, (October 1950 )
- Bruce Gillan, who grew up in Canberra, in September 1951.
- Ronald Howe and John Hubble in November 1952.
When Hunt, a young slightly built veteran of the Pacific War, heard that he was being posted to Korea he didn’t believe it. On duty at Fairbairn when he got the news, reality only set in after a few quiet beers at the sergeants’ mess. He went home to his wife on the base but it took him several hours to find the courage to tell her. The next day he and Murray left for the RAAF Base, Richmond near Sydney.
Hunt, Coburn, Murray and Klaffer left Sydney on 6 July and less than a week later Coburn and Murray were on their first mission flying from Iwakuni to attack North Korean positions in the South. On 23 July Klaffer destroyed a tank near Hamchang but the North Koreans had broken through the American lines and were pushing the UN troops back towards Pusan. The Australian airmen spent the next month on missions to slow the enemy advance. It is about 320 kilometres from Iwakuni across the Tsushima Straits to Pusan, the nearest city on the coast of South Korea. The United Nations forces dominated the air but even so, the flight between Korea and Japan had its own hazards.
On 4 September 1950 Coburn and Murray were returning to Iwakuni after participating in a napalm attack on a hill near Angang-Ni when Coburn’s Mustang developed a coolant leak from its radiator. He headed towards the mountains on the coast of Japan but as the Mustang’s temperature gauge topped its maximum limit, the plane began to vibrate violently and lose height. Coburn was forced to bail out.
Murray saw Coburn’s plane plummet towards the ground but had not seen him jump. As the Mustang crashed, Murray finally spotted the parachute and Coburn waving to him from the ground. The Japanese locals picked him up “gave him a couple of beers to drink and he was right as rain.”
Howe had a lucky escape the following March. His plane was hit by enemy ground fire while he was on a reconnaissance mission near Seoul but he managed to land the plane on an island in the Han River before being rescued by a helicopter. Such was the fluid nature of the war in Korea that on the same day Seoul fell for the fourth time.
As winter approached the UN forces pushed the North Koreans back beyond the 38th Parallel. In November 1950 the Australian airmen shifted their operational base to Yonpo in North Korea. The squadron was able to spend more time attacking enemy targets from this forward base however the Chinese had now entered the war on the side of the North Koreans. In the harsh Korean winter the Chinese surrounded US Marines near the Changjin reservoir high in the mountains and 77th Squadron were requested to provide assistance to the Americans. Coburn, Murray, Klaffer and Hunt were flying sorties attempting to cover the retreating UN soldiers. By December 1950, with the Chinese and the North Koreans advancing rapidly south, 77th Squadron had to move their base for operations back to Pusan.
Coburn and another pilot were the first Australian pilots to reach one hundred sorties during an operation in support of American troops near Seoul on 18 February 1951. Hunt flew his one hundredth mission shortly after and took the chance offered to pilots achieving the milestone to return to Australia. He returned to Canberra and spent some time with his wife at the beach but the lure of training and flying a jet fighter proved too much. Hunt returned to Korea in April 1951 flying a Gloster Meteor jet which replaced the propeller driven Mustangs. During his service in Korea he flew 150 missions.
Although 77th Squadron had an air combat role, their Meteor jets could not compete in terms of speed and manoeuvrability with the Russian built MiG fighters used by the Chinese Air Force. They were also hampered by the rules of engagement adopted by the UN which prevented its pilots from flying into Chinese airspace. The Chinese Air Force had a distinct advantage by basing its planes at an airfield on its side of the North Korean border and when UN planes, including the Australian Meteors, attempted to attack enemy troops, the Chinese would swoop down on them through what was known as ‘MiG Alley’.
Bruce ‘Pussy’ Gillan joined the Canberra Aero Club while still at Canberra High. Nobody quite remembers why he was known as ‘Pussy’, but he cut a dashing figure as a cadet at school where he was also the vice-captain. He joined the RAAF in 1949 and trained at Point Cook, Canberra and Williamtown before being posted to Korea in September 1951. By Christmas he had flown in more than 60 missions in his Meteor jet. At the beginning of 1952 the role of the Australians changed from air combat, where they were susceptible to the superior speed of the MiGs, to one of precision strikes at ground targets with rockets and cannon.
On 27 January 1952 Gillan was flying one of six Meteors on a reconnaissance mission over North Korea. He and his wingman had strafed Chujin airfield and were following the railway line towards the town of Chaiya-Ri when Gillan’s jet was hit by ground fire. Smoke and flames were seen billowing from the starboard side of his damaged aircraft and Gillan radioed that he would try to return to base at Kimpo near Seoul. That was the last anyone heard of him. His wingman flew up alongside Gillan’s jet, which was flying straight and level at about 150 feet, but there was nobody in it. It is believed he managed to eject from his plane but, despite an aerial search over the snow-covered ground, his body was never recovered. Gillan was awarded the US Air Medal for his "courage, aggressiveness, tactical skill and devotion in aerial combat missions" over Korea from 15 September to 24 October 1951.
John Hubble commanded 3rd Squadron at RAAF Base Canberra before being posted to Korea in November 1952. He took over command of 77th Squadron on 20 January 1953 and, as only one of five Australian pilots with a full instrument rating, he regularly flew night interdiction missions against enemy supply lines. A nurse who knew him when he was based at Canberra arrived in Korea in April 1953 and described Hubble: “I blinked for a moment, after introduction, for he had grown a moustache to oust all moustaches and with his 6 feet 2 inches (188 centimetres) height and twinkling grey eyes, he was indeed a dashing specimen of Australian manhood.” The glamorous Hubble completed his tour of Korea in June 1953 and almost immediately upon his return to his home town of Perth, married a model. It would only be a few weeks later that 77th Squadron flew its final mission in Korea on 20 July 1953.
Ross Coburn (at right) at a de-briefing after completing his 100th mission over Korea, 1951.
From: Odgers, Across the Parallel: The Australian 77th Squadron with the United States Air Force in the Korean War, p. 163.
Wilson, David. Lion over Korea : 77 Fighter squadron, RAAF, 1950-53. Belconnen, ACT : Banner Books, 1994.
George Odgers, Across the Parallel: The Australian 77th Squadron with the United States Air Force in the Korean War. Melbourne : William Heinemann, 1952.
Lyall Klaffer, ‘Fighter Pilot’, AWM Collections Record MSS2043
Gay Bury - www.australiansatwar.gov.au/stories/stories_ID=226_war=KO.html
The Canberra Times