Phillip Zupp ~ 201 missions over Korea

On December 1st, 1952, the day after Phillip Zupp arrived on the Korean Peninsula, twelve Gloster F.8 Meteors of the Royal Australian Air Force’s 77 Interceptor Fighter (IF) Squadron were on the receiving end of an aerial ambush. Mikoyan-Gurevich Mig-15 “Fagots”, in the hands of Soviet pilots, attacked from above and in superior numbers, resulting in three Australians being lost in the ensuing melee.

It was a sobering welcome to the squadron for the new pilot, yet in the ensuing seven months he would learn his trade as a fighter pilot and go on to fly 201 missions in his own right.

Prelude to War.

Phil Zupp’s childhood did not suggest that he would ever take to the skies, no matter how strong that dream might have been. Surrounded by cattle dying from drought and economies crashing in the Great Depression, his education was cut short as he sought to contribute to his families meagre farming income by cleaning out furnaces at the local foundry. In World War Two he trained as a RAAF navigator, but subsequently transferred to the Army when he became surplus to air crew requirements. There he saw service in the jungles of New Guinea as a commando before serving in one of the first contingents at Hiroshima, Japan as part of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF).

Returning to Australia, he became a ‘cane-cutter’, harvesting sugar cane by hand. It was hard, filthy work, but it paid very well. On re-enlisting in the RAAF to train as a mechanic in 1948, he used the savings from his previous labouring to learn to fly privately. Despite of his poor level of formal education, the next year he was accepted for pilot training on the evidence of his performance as a trainee mechanic and the recommendation of a senior officer. For Phil Zupp, the planets had finally aligned.

Surviving the initial culling stages at RAAF Point Cook, he became part of No. 4 Pilot’s Course. As with so many military pilots across the Commonwealth, his initial training was in the de Havilland DH-82 Tiger Moth, the same type that he trained on in the civilian world. The next step was the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation (CAC) Wirraway, an aircraft very similar to the venerable North American Harvard.

As Phil and his course mates readied to fly the Wirraway for the first time, North Korea invaded the South just before sunrise on the 25th of June 1950. Australia’s 77 Squadron had been serving as part of the BCOF in Japan when the war broke and were literally ready to depart for Australia, celebrating the occasion with a ‘shipwreck’ party at their base in Iwakuni when their plans were changed. On July 2nd, the squadron flew its first mission, equipped with North American P-51D Mustangs.

The ramifications for Phil and his fellow trainees were obvious. The RAAF was now at war and short of pilots, due to the scaling back in resources following World War Two. Over the ensuing months, Phil moved onto the twin-engined Airspeed Oxford before graduating as a Sergeant Pilot in February of 1951.

His next aircraft was the Mustang. In the absence of a dual seat trainer, the handling notes were studied thoroughly and drills in the aircraft were learned to a standard where they could be executed blindfolded. Exposure to the poor visibility beyond the Mustang’s long nose and higher approach speeds was gained by flying the Wirraway from the back seat and landing flapless.

Having satisfactorily flown the Mustang and been trained in fighter tactics and ground attack with 3 Squadron, the transition to jet aircraft came via the de Havilland F30 Vampire. At the time, there were no two-seat Vampires available, so a similar combination of Pilots Notes, briefings and supervised engine starts preceded Phil’s first flight in a nosewheel aircraft, a pressurised cockpit and powered by a jet powerplant – a flight flown ‘solo’. And he was well aware that if it all went wrong, there was no ejection seat fitted to the early model Vampire either.

Shipping out to Japan in late 1951, the conversion to the Gloster Meteor took place at Iwakuni and consisted of 10 hours of conversion training that included the relative luxury of 2 hours in a dual-seat T.7 Meteor with an instructor. Still, the Meteor jet was only the second twin-engined aircraft he was endorsed on after the Airspeed Oxford with its wooden propellers.

Phil’s next flight in the Meteor was to set course for Korea.

Down to Earth.

The losses of December 1st had a significant impact on the role of 77 Squadron. Recognising that the British jet did not lend itself to aerial combat at altitude with the more nimble, swept wing Mig-15, the squadron was relegated to an air-defence role. However, the arrival of a new Commanding Officer, Wing Commander Ron Susans DSO DFC, saw the Australian squadron re-tasked into a role of ground attack and it was a role that it would excel in.

From the outset, the Meteor was far better suited to the demands of ground attack. The durability of the British jet was to hold it in good stead against the ever-present ground fire. The missions were flown, or bottomed out, at extremely low level and instances of contacting the ventral tank with mother earth are documented. It was also a relatively stable gun platform, although some pilots found it to ‘snake’ on occasions.

The Meteor’s Achilles Heel was the exposed, belly-mounted ventral tank. The additional 175 Gallons was critical for the range-limited fighter, but could also prove a ‘ticking bomb’. The ignition of its volatile contents was responsible for the loss of a number of aircraft and pilots.

Offensively, the Meteor was armed with 4 x 20mm nose-mounted Hispano cannons and up to sixteen x 60lb rockets beneath its wings. Strikes were made against trains, trucks, bridges, buildings and anything else that contributed to the enemy’s infrastructure.

The operating environment in Korea was in stark contrast to that of Australia. The terrain was characterised by jagged ranges and deep valleys and the depths of the Korean winter blanketed the landscape in snow, making navigation a challenge. The cold also brought with it several additional hazards.

Ground crews’ hands could freeze on tools if they were grasped with a bare hand and the Meteor’s nose-mounted cine camera’s lens would become obscured by ice. The Meteor’s ejection seat carried a bladder of emergency water which left pilots on pre-dawn standby sitting on an ice-block – a problem slightly relieved by layers of newspaper. Scrap wood was of a premium as it could be used as fuel in each tent’s central pot-belly heater as well as lining on the walls against the elements. By night, an old Russian Polikarpov Po-2 biplane, or ‘Bed Check Charlie’, would drop small bombs to inflict minimal damage beyond disturbed sleep patterns.

The runway and taxiways at K-14 Kimpo were constructed of Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) and could become slippery in icy conditions. Airframe icing was kept partially at bay by each aircraft taxiing very close behind the other to use the preceding jet’s efflux to heat the leading edges of the wing. A technique that failed the leading aircraft. To this frozen backdrop, Phil taxied out on his first mission, close behind Wal Rivers DFC, an experienced pilot on his second tour having previously flown Mustangs. Phil was flying Meteor A77-368, the same aircraft is now on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.)

The purpose of the first sortie was planned as a familiarisation flight to acquaint Phil with the terrain, roads and towns to the north of K-14 and the ‘bomb line’. However, instead of an orientation flight, the order was given without notice to ‘scramble’ to intercept inbound unidentified aircraft.

In the next instant, a flock of tumbling sparrows seemed to fly past Phil’s cockpit. He wondered what business the tiny birds had being at such an altitude, when the realisation dawned upon him. They weren’t birds, they were the 20mm shell casings being ejected from the leading Meteor as he tested his cannons. He felt both stupid and sick. He had tucked right into the shells path and they could have easily brought him down. The mission went without further incident and like most sorties, it was forty minutes in duration.

First Combat.

Phil’s first ground attack mission was typical of 77 Squadron operations at the time. A mission would begin the night before when US intelligence would identify targets for the next day and send a ‘Frag Order’ through to 77 Squadron. The pilots would gather for a briefing from the squadron’s Intelligence Officer who would nominate the target, expected anti-aircraft fire and the optimum direction of attack and the planned route of escape. The current ‘bomb line’ and Main Supply Route (MSR) were highlighted as were emergency details, US-held islands and search and rescue bases.

On this occasion, the target was buildings near Chinnampo to the south of the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, and on the northern shore of the Taedong River. The four pilots had been briefed to remain clear of Haeju as they made their way to the target as the port city was a known hot spot for anti-aircraft fire.

A large building sat on the edge of the frozen harbour and was easily identifiable from altitude. The Meteors descended to 5,000 feet to commence the attack with the four aircraft slipping, one behind the other, into a ‘line astern’ formation. Wing Commander Susans rolled into a 30-degree dive and the other Meteors followed close behind, although varying their direction to avoid the ant-aircraft guns that were now inevitably tracking them.

The dive angle had to be held steady for 10 to 20 seconds to allow the gunsight computer to assess the correct graticule position. Passing through 1500 feet, the pilots would depress the button on the top of the control column to release their rockets from their rails. Within seconds the rockets were erupting in flames and raining devastation on the building below.

As the air filled with smoke and fragments, the Meteor pilots pulled their jets into a climbing turn with their throttles advanced to full power. The heavier, faster Meteor did not pull out of a dive like the Mustang they had trained on and this inertia had accounted for the loss of pilots on operations. In the absence of G-suits, the increased force of gravity was kept at bay by tensed guts as blacking out was a real threat as was flying through the debris rising from the target.

Clear of the target and at a safe altitude, Susans called for each member of ‘Godfrey Flight’ to check in on the radio. It was the standard means of taking a ‘head count’ that took place after every mission before they reformed into the ‘finger four’ and set course for Kimpo.

201 Missions.

The ensuing months were hectic and Phil did not always return unscathed. Often his Meteor was damaged by ground fire, an inevitable consequence of his preference to be the last aircraft over the target – or ‘Tail End Charlie’. The method in Phil’s perceived madness was that he had the ability to see where the preceding aircraft’s rockets or tracers were striking the ground and this could be an indication of the conditions, such as a tailwind if the shots were landing long.

Possibly his closest call came on February 6th, 1952, a month in which the squadron flew a combined total of more than 1,000 missions. Searching for a downed pilot in the Sibyon-Ni area, Phil thought he had caught a glimpse of a pilot’s red ‘marker scarf’ on the snow. As he wrenched the Meteor around, vapour streaming from its wingtips, he struggled to recapture the red object he’d seen.

His next memory was the deafening roar as his cockpit seemingly exploded around him. With the canopy in pieces, the freezing airflow rushed by at 300 knots. He heaved back on the control column as his Meteor’s ventral tank was now perilously close to the ground. Struggling to gain his orientation, he reached to straighten the askew oxygen mask and shattered goggles, his face now stinging from embedded Perspex and shrapnel. He would later recall, “There seemed an inordinate amount of blood. It was over me, the cockpit and the “clocks”.

He pointed the Meteor south and swept past Kaesong as he set course for Kimpo. Inbound he advised the Controller that he had been hit and, as the result of further enquiry, stated he had injuries to the head. An Aussie drawl came across the frequency, “Don’t worry Zuppie, that’s your hardest part.”

After landing without event, he reported to the medical staff and completed his de-brief. There was no further sign was the pilot who would ultimately see out the remainder of the war in captivity. The next day Phil was flying again and participated in two missions.

Heading Home.

Korea is often called the ‘Forgotten War’, lost somewhere between the enormity of World War Two and the controversy of Vietnam. During its service, 77 Squadron RAAF lost more than 40 pilots at a ratio of about one-in-four that served.

In his time in Korea, Sergeant Phillip Zupp was Mentioned-in-Dispatches and awarded the US Air Medal. Unknown to him, he was also the first Australian to be awarded the US Purple Heart for his actions on February 6th. The right to wear the decoration was apparently denied and its saga only surfaced in the 1990s when the Presidential Citation and other documents came to light.

A pilot never knew when his final mission was to take place. In July of 1952, Phil knew that his time must be drawing near, but he also wanted to make the ‘200 mission’ mark, which was substantial for a single tour. Despite the miserable weather in the area, he achieved his goal and on June 11th flew his 201st mission, an armed reconnaissance along the main supply route which left five buildings and two trucks reduced to burning rubble.

As he began to unstrap his helmet back at Kimpo, he saw the acting-Commanding Officer Squadron Leader Bill Bennett DFC walking towards his Meteor with a smile on his face. Phil had his helmet off, but was still strapped in his seat as Bill climbed up the side of the Meteor and leaned into the cockpit. He placed his hand on Phil’s shoulder and uttered simply, “Good job son. You’re going home.”