It was a hairy rescue that began ordinarily enough.
First Lieutenant Charles H. Field was the pilot of the 3rd Air Rescue Squadron’s “standby” H-5 helicopter at Seoul’s K-16 airfield on April 30, 1951. Field learned that a South African F-51 Mustang pilot, Lt. Piet Cilliers, had been shot down near Sariwon, North Korea, about 70 miles behind the lines. Celliers belonged to South Africa’s No. 2 “Cheetah” Squadron, a component of the U.S. Air Force’s 18th Fighter Bomber Wing.
Field and Air Force medical corpsman Spellman E. Patterson took off to attempt a rescue.
When they arrived at the scene of the shootdown, Chinese troops were directing small-arms fire at Cilliers, who’d hiked to the top of a ridge but then sustained a bullet wound in the leg. Mustangs were strafing the Chinese troops, who were closing in on the pilot from two directions.
Remembered Cilliers: “I was flying at 500 feet when I was hit by medium anti-aircraft fire. The Mustang started burning. I jettisoned the canopy. But then the fire came into the cockpit. I crawled halfway out with my legs stuck in the cockpit. The aircraft was descending fairly rapidly. I kicked myself free and immediately on clearing the aircraft opened the parachute.
“When I took off in that shaky, clattering H-5 with medic Patterson crouched behind me, we had some communication with our airfield, but none with the pilot on the ground,” said Field. “The terrain in Korea is rugged and mountainous. The intelligence guy had explained it to me in plain English: ‘The whole goddamn Chinese army is swarming through the hills up there, so it would be a good idea for you to watch out for yourself.'”
Sikorsky H-5 Helicopter
The Sikorsky H-5 looks like a clunker today, but it was revolutionary in 1951. The Navy version became well known to Americans when Mickey Rooney brought one into a Korean rice paddy in a failed attempt to rescue William Holden in the movie version of James Michener’s The Bridges at Toko-ri.
“It’s a slim helicopter, sitting on tricycle landing gear with a 450-horsepower Pratt & Whitney engine driving a 48-foot, three-bladed rotor,” Field said. “I never felt for a moment that I had too much power. I also didn’t have any excess of lifting capacity.”
The H-5 wasn’t equipped for safe operation at night, or in heavy rain, icing conditions, or high winds. “The fuselage leaked like a sieve,” said Field. “It really was not an instrument aircraft, either, so we were pretty much limited to visual flying.”
Charles Field was born in 1926 in Atlanta. He was an aviation cadet when World War II ended. He became an Air Force pilot in 1948. He first flew the H-5 in 1950, went to Korea soon afterward, and almost immediately crashed an H-5 at a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, or MASH. No one was hurt.
Piet Cilliers joined the South African Air Force in 1945. “Not many Americans even remember that we South Africans fought side-by-side with you during the Korean War. When one group of our officers arrived in the combat zone, an American officer expressed surprise that we were all white. ‘We thought everybody in Africa was black,’ he said. Other Americans thought we talked funny, or had odd-looking uniforms.”
Across the bombline and in enemy territory, Field spotted flashes from Cilliers’ hand-held signal mirror. “I also saw muzzle flashes from Chinese troops.”
A new flight of Mustangs was helping. “An American pilot Capt. Gerry Hoag strafed something about 200 yards from me, and then I noticed about ten armed gooks creeping up on me,” Cilliers said. “Suddenly, a helicopter appeared from the east, approached me, and flew over and then away. It came past a second time without landing. When it came around for the third time I prepared to fire a signaling flare to indicate my position This would have given away my position to the Chinese troops as well. The small arms fire and ack-ack was increasing considerably.
“A Chinese soldier came close to me, stood fully erect and emptied the clip of his rifle at me in a continuous burst of fire.”
Cilliers continued: “On the third run the chopper landed next to me. I did not stand up for fear of being hit by small arms fire so crawled under the chopper to the open door on the far side. The crewman helped me in and the pilot increased power for takeoff. A Chinese soldier was standing right in front of the nose of the helicopter spraying bullets at it.”
Aloft and Afire
Field made a radio call to K-16 airfield and reported that he’d gotten off the ground with the rescued Cilliers but that there was an aircraft on fire.
“Who’s on fire?” they asked him.
“We are,” Field replied.
“Behind enemy lines or not, when I see smoke and fire, I’m ready to park,” Field said. “The Mustang flight leader told me again that I was burning. We had a rushed, nervous discussion about whether I should find a paddy field to land in, in the hope more helicopters could be sent to pick us up. Another H-5 wasn’t going to be able to lift the three of us plus its pilot and the Chinese troops seemed to be pretty close. I saw streaks of smoke pouring behind us but no actual flames. I told him we would continue.”
“As we got airborne,” Cilliers said, “I told the pilot that there was considerable ground fire and suggested he weave, not realizing that helicopters do not weave. After becoming airborne I gave my .38 revolver to the crewman, but when Charlie informed me that the chopper was hit and with a chance of having to carry out a forced landing I asked for my firearm to be returned. We fortunately made it to K-16 on a shoestring, leaking oil and with very little fuel left.”
“The distance may have seemed relatively short,” Field said, “but that was one long helicopter trip. I managed to coax the H-5 back to K-16 and they rushed the South African pilot, Cilliers, quickly, to the medics. I learned later that he was evacuated to an American hospital ship in Pusan, and then flown to a British hospital in Kure, Japan. After recovering, he returned to South Africa.
“My H-5 helicopter was a mess. It hadn’t been very pretty to begin with, but now it had smears from oil leaks and a bunch of dings. I learned on inspecting the H-5 that one of the Chinese rifle bullets had punctured a fitting on an oil return line. The smoke had come from burning oil rather than more dangerous aviation fuel.
“I flew dozens of other missions in Korea, including one in which I rescued another South African Mustang pilot. They awarded me the Silver Star for the Cilliers rescue. I served a full career in the Air Force and retired as a major. I later did some civilian helicopter piloting as a flying game warden. Today, I live in Austin, Texas.”
“If it were not for Charlie Field, I doubt I would be here today, and I am sure that that would apply to many of the downed aircrew that chopper pilots like Charlie rescued from under the gooks’ noses in the Korean War,” Cilliers said. “Today I live in Capetown. I still have the signal mirror that brought me salvation from the H-5 helicopter – and even some North Korean soil to go with it.”
- Crew: 2
- Capacity: 1-2 personnel, depending on fuel load
- Length: 57 feet 1 inch (17.40 meters)
- Rotor diameter: 48 feet 0 inches (14.63 meters)
- Height: 13 feet 0 inches (3.96 meters)
- Disc area: 1,810 square feet (168.2 m²)
- Empty weight: 3,780 pounds (1,718 kilograms)
- Loaded weight: 4,825 pounds (2,193 kilograms)
- Powerplant: 1 × Pratt & Whitney R-985 Wasp Junior 9-cylinder radial; 450 horsepower (335 kW)
- Maximum speed: 92 knots (106 mph, 171 km/h)
- Range: 313 nautical miles (360 miles, 580 kilometers)
- Service ceiling: 14,400 feet (4,390 meters)
Robert F. Dorr’s latest book is Mission to Tokyo. For more stories about helicopters at war, read Dorr’s Chopper: A History of American Military Helicopter Operations from World War II to the War on Terror.