They were a curious collection of Canadian soldier-flyboys; heroes you’ve probably never heard of.
This handful, who fought in the dangerous skies above Korea six decades ago, flew in American planes, were in an American unit, but wore Canadian uniforms.
And they weren’t technically airmen at all, but were infantry soldiers.
They were called “The Mosquitos.”
Yet, somehow their harrowing experiences day-after-day as their aircraft blistered along often only a few feet over enemy positions, are scarcely known.
These men, are not to be confused with the 22 RCAF fighter pilots who were attached to USAF squadrons. These men, the Mosquitos, were different: they were combat riflemen, who flew.
Early in the war, 17 British troops were accidentally killed and 76 injured by US air attack in a friendly fire incident. To avoid such tragedies again, the US set up an outfit called the 6147 Tactical Control Group. Their job was to circle the battlefield, identify friendly troops, direct air strikes, mark out enemy forces with smoke rockets for incoming fighters and bombers, and then finally, assess damage by making low passes over the fighting zone.
Seventeen Canadian soldiers flew on such missions. They were the spotters, and sat behind the pilot in the two-seat Harvards (known to the Americans as Texans).
It was harrowing work.
Four Canadian Mosquitos received Distinguished Flying Crosses, five received Air Medals, and one received the Military Cross. Three men were casualties, including Lieut. Neil Anderson of the Queens Own Rifles, who was killed.
When Bud MacLeod, then a 21-year-old lieutenant with the 2nd Battalion, Prince Patricias Canadian Light Infantry (the unit that fought at Kapyong only a month earlier), reported for duty at his American airbase, his new poker-playing tent-mates had a radio turned on, ominously playing “So long, It’s Been Good To Know You.”
He was told just to toss his kit bag on that cot in the corner over there.
But, MacLeod said, there was already someone else’s gear there.
“Oh George won’t been needing it any more,” he was told. “He was shot down today … Graves Registration will pick it up in the morning … Pull up a stool. Got any money?”
His first flight was so terrifying he remembers nothing about it, except it was terrifying. Later, he says, he graduated from terror into being “just scared.”
Sometimes, MacLeod recalls, the Mosquitos flew in so low, coming over the brow of hill they scattered enemy soldiers having their morning coffee … so low in fact hand grenades could be tossed up at the plane.
In one mission, MacLeod and his pilot were flying up a valley, looking for an entry to an adjacent valley. He mis-read his map and sent them into a re-entrant that was both narrower … and — shudder — had higher sides, which got closer and closer by the second. Soon there was no room left to turn.
As MacLeod relates sardonically: “So we had to struggle on. I pulled up on my seat in hopes of making the aircraft lighter. As we approached the pass, we could see two soldiers cooking breakfast right in the pass saddle. We cleared that mountain pass by about ten feet and the enemy dove for cover.
“So there were four who required a change of laundry that day.”
One of MacLeod’s pilots once went up with a rifle and a bag of grenades. Over the target, he blazed away, while tossing his grenades out the cockpit. MacLeod cringed at the thought of flying with that guy ever again.
A few days later, MacLeod was late arriving at the flight line .. only to be told his aggressive pilot had already taken off with a last-minute replacement spotter. The plane MacLeod was assigned to be on, never returned from the mission and the bodies never recovered.
Then there’s the out-of-Hollywood story of Capt. Pat Tremblay of the Royal 22nd Regiment. On his very first flight, his plane was hit and the pilot knocked unconscious. Tremblay was a trained parachutist, and could have bailed out. He did not. Rather than leave the wounded pilot to a certain death, he stayed on board, maneuvered the stricken plane back over friendly lines and crash-landed at a friendly airbase, saving the pilot’s life. Tremblay had never piloted a plane in his life before that moment. He received the Military Cross for bravery.
They were a remarkable group of young men. One of the best known was Peter Worthington, who went on to become a widely-read journalist and war correspondent who wrote often and passionately about Korea and the valour of the men who fought there. Peter passed away this weekend.
Their group was called Mosquitos, incidentally, because captured enemy soldiers said one of the most aggravating aspects of life at the front was the incessant buzzing of the silver birds that circled above them, and knowing bombs and rockets would soon be on their way.
The Mosquitos have a web site:
This summer at the cottage, when you hear that irritating buzzing, think of those soldier-fliers from six decades ago. Sometimes, Mosquitos can be your friend.