Operation Hawk: The Korean Airlift

August 7, 2013 by Hugh A. Halliday

In 1947, while Prime Minister Mackenzie King was in London, his Minister of Foreign Affairs (and chosen successor), Louis St-Laurent, consented to Canadian participation on the United Nations Temporary Commission of Korea (UNTOK). On his return to Canada, King furiously confronted St-Laurent. He wanted no part—even at the fringes—of Korean affairs, which he considered dangerous.

Canadian troops board a North Star en route to Korea from McChord Air Force Base. [PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA115553]

Canadian troops board a North Star en route to Korea from McChord Air Force Base.
PHOTO: LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA—PA115553

St-Laurent, in turn, threatened to resign. Ultimately, the old prime minister backed down. The incident marked a phase in the changing of the guard in Ottawa, and a movement towards increasing Canadian involvement in international affairs.

Mackenzie King died on July 22, 1950. As he lay in state in the Parliament Buildings, six North Star aircraft of No. 426 Squadron flew over, saluting his passing as they were en route to Tacoma, Washington, to commence a Royal Canadian Air Force transoceanic airlift in support of United Nations forces fighting in Korea.

It is not known if the former prime minister was spinning in his coffin.

Although the RCAF had considerable air transport experience during the Second World War, only the work of No. 168 (Heavy Transport) Sqdn., delivering service mail to Europe, constituted a sustained transatlantic operation. With the retirement of its Fortress and Liberator aircraft, which were converted from bombers to freighters, the RCAF briefly lost its long-range transport capability. This gap was soon filled by the Canadair North Star, built in Montreal for the RCAF, TCA (Trans-Canada Airlines and later Air Canada) and other civil carriers.

The North Star was basically a Douglas DC-4, but with Rolls-Royce Merlin in-line engines instead of Pratt-and-Whitney radials. It was a dependable aircraft, but generations of passengers and crew would remember the tremendous noise and vibration in flight. The full story of this is related by Larry Milberry in his 1982 book The Canadair North Star.

Deliveries of the new aircraft to the RCAF were delayed when priority was given to TCA to help it establish a Canadian presence in transatlantic commercial flying. Crews of No. 426 (Thunderbird) Sqdn. finally began North Star training early in 1948, and actual operations on the type commenced that summer.

OPERATION HAWK - KOREAN AIRLIFT JULY 1950 - JUNE 1954. [ILLUSTRATION: 426 THUNDERBIRD SQUADRON, ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE]

OPERATION HAWK – KOREAN AIRLIFT JULY 1950 – JUNE 1954.
ILLUSTRATION: 426 THUNDERBIRD SQUADRON, ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE

While the RCAF did not participate in the July 1948 to May 1949 Berlin Airlift, a few individual aircrew did while on exchange duties with the Royal Air Force and United States Air Force. As it happened, the airlift seriously degraded the USAF Military Air Transport Service (MATS) after flour and coal dust penetrated the seams of every participating aircraft. When it was next marshalled to meet the Korean crisis, MATS needed all the help it could get—and that was forthcoming when the Canadian government committed No. 426 Sqdn.—its only long-range transport unit—to the Korean campaign.

In recounting the RCAF’s transpacific operational story, one must pay tribute to Laurence Motiuk, author of two monumental volumes, namely Thunderbirds at War: Diary of a Bomber Squadron, and Thunderbirds for Peace: Diary of a Transport Squadron, which set out the history of No. 426 Sqdn. The latter work was particularly difficult to write, given that in the 1950s, RCAF units often submitted incomplete historical narratives and in some instances neglected to prepare any at all.

Motiuk’s account of the postwar squadron was drawn from numerous unofficial records, including log books as well as the sketchy unit reports.

Almost from the moment that North Korea launched its invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, No. 426 Sqdn. personnel were preparing for overseas operations. If Canada was going to be involved, that unit was certain to be mobilized. Cabinet approval came through on July 19, 1950. The squadron cancelled all further transport work with the exception of vital northern resupply.

Deployment to McChord Air Force Base, Tacoma, Washington, began on the 25th. Six North Stars, 12 crews and 185 ground personnel were dispatched. Two-thirds of the aircrew were veterans of the Second World War; the remainder were men who had joined the RCAF after 1947. Three of the aircraft left Tacoma on the 27th, arriving at Haneda in Tokyo two days later. Operation Hawk was under way.

It might be noted that No. 426 Sqdn. was not alone in supporting operations in Korea. Historian Carl Mills reminds us that Canadian Pacific Airlines provided charter services to MATS from August 1950 to March 1955, conducting 703 transpacific flights. Unlike the RCAF operation, these involved passengers only. They lost one aircraft (CF-CPC), a DC-4 with seven crew members and 31 passengers on July 2, 1951. The aircraft, outbound from Vancouver, disappeared near Yakutat, Alaska; no trace was ever found.

The North Stars followed a challenging route. From McChord to Elmendorf Air Force Base in Alaska was 1,490 miles. This was followed by a 1,537-mile run to Shemya Air Force Base in the Aleutian Islands. Next came the 2,104-mile flight to Haneda in Tokyo, with the aircraft making landfall at Matsushima (Honshu, Japan).

The Shemya-Matsushima leg was particularly challenging; care had to be taken not to drift into Russian airspace, a task complicated by Russian efforts to jam radio and navigational aids. Depending on the season, the aircraft might return by the same route, or take a more southerly central Pacific track from Haneda to Wake Island to Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu. From there the aircraft would journey to Travis Air Force Base in San Francisco, and then on to McChord.

Initially it was hoped the unit could dispatch one sortie per day, but this proved beyond the resources of a six-plane outfit. Eventually, No. 426 found it could send off five aircraft per week. Not surprisingly, its peak activity coincided with the buildup of United Nations forces in Korea and their maintenance during the period of mobile warfare.

A North Star at Haneda Air Field, Japan. [PHOTO: 426 THUNDERBIRD SQUADRON, ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE]

A North Star at Haneda Air Field, Japan.
PHOTO: 426 THUNDERBIRD SQUADRON, ROYAL CANADIAN AIR FORCE

Between July 28 and Dec. 31, 1950, the squadron dispatched 123 aircraft across the Pacific. In the whole of 1951 it was 193 missions, but in 1952 it dropped to 133. Not only were the Thunderbirds returning to more traditional duties in Canada, they were also assuming the job of providing transport, including personnel rotation, to Canada’s growing land and air presence in Europe. In 1953—the last full year of Hawk—it was 85 missions.

The final Hawk mission departed McChord on May 31, 1954, and ended at the squadron’s home base at Dorval on June 9, 1954. As it wound up, an RCAF dispatch reported that No. 426 Sqdn. had flown 599 round trips—four of them directly to Korea itself—logged 34,000 flying hours, carried 13,000 personnel, and airlifted 3,500 tons of freight. The report erred on two points. Six flights (not four) had gone directly to Korea. The other discrepancy was that there were only 584 missions; for some unknown reason the numbered listing of flights had jumped from “439” on Nov. 26, 1952, to “455” on Nov. 28, 1952; the inaccurate 1954 press release continues to be quoted, ad nauseam, to this day.

Operation Hawk was accomplished with no fatalities but some close calls and more than a few incidents. On Sept. 15, 1950, Wing Commander C.H. Mussells, Commanding Officer of No. 426 Sqdn., departed McChord for Elmendorf with American soldiers and anti-tank ammunition. Both were urgently needed in Korea, so the aircraft had been permitted an overload clearance.

Three hours after takeoff, one of the Merlin engines began overheating through a coolant leak. Mussells shut down the engine, feathered the propeller, and prepared to return to McChord. Then a second engine on the same side overheated. It was also shut down. There was now no question about getting to McChord; Mussells prepared to make an emergency landing at Sandspit (Moresby Island).

To lighten the aircraft, Mussells dumped excess fuel. Some passengers mistook the misty gasoline trail for smoke, panicked and crowded to the back of the fuselage, as if that would have offered safety. This complicated the process of trimming the aircraft for landing. A crewman ordered everyone back to their seats, but the soldiers could not have been reassured as the North Star flew over a crashed USAF aircraft, its tail still sticking out of the water, during the final approach into Sandspit. Happily, Mussells landed safely.

On April 19, 1951, a North Star piloted by Flight Lieutenant J.A. Watt was on a route-training flight to an unfamiliar field—Ashiya—located between Osaka and Kobe, Japan. He was cleared by Ashiya tower to descend from 4,000 to 3,000 feet. At 3,400 feet the aircraft hit trees atop a hill that was not even indicated on the airfield map. No one was injured but the aircraft sustained considerable damage to its nose, oil cooler and exterior radio aerials. The pitot head was also wiped out, and with it the airspeed indicator. The aircraft also lost the use of an engine.

Fortunately, the passengers included three of the most experienced North Star captains in the RCAF: Wing Cmdr. Mussells, Wing Cmdr. J.K. MacDonald, and Flying Officer Robert Edwards. After assessing the damage, Mussells ordered MacDonald and Edwards to complete the landing, which they did.

On the night of Dec. 27, 1953, Squadron Leader E.L. Hare was homeward bound from Japan in North Star 17516, bound for Shemya. The weather was bad and the ceiling minimal. Visibility was a half mile with a savage crosswind blowing at a 90-degree angle. The runway surface was covered with wet snow; braking conditions were poor. On the third landing attempt, everything came together in the worst possible way. The North Star was blown off the runway into a gully. Everyone survived, but 17516 was a total “write-off”–the only RCAF aircraft lost in the course of Operation Hawk.

Canadian military policy with respect to honours and awards was very restrictive from 1946 onwards, but rules were relaxed during the Korean War. Personnel involved in Hawk were awarded one Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), one Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), four Air Force Crosses, two Air Force Medals and 13 Queen’s Commendations. Most of these were to aircrew personnel, but Sqdn. Ldr. W.H. Lord was granted an MBE for his work in establishing and supervising the maintenance detachments that serviced the North Stars wherever they alighted along the 11,000 mile route.

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