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Pilot flew F-84 Thunderjet in Korean War

Big Mantrap Lake resident Len Beckel piloted 38 missions during the Korean war in the F-84. (Submitted photo)

The Korean War, often referred to as "the forgotten war," was in its first year when Len Beckel enlisted in basic training with the Air Force.

Draft notices, much to his mother's distress, had been arriving at the Beckel's home in Austin. And to her greater distress, her son was ignoring them.

But not for long.

Beckel had initially considered himself, as a student, deferred. But with the sheriff threatening a summons, he and his roommate at the University of Minnesota decided to make the acquaintance of an Air Force recruiter and take the entrance exam.

"We both aced it," the Big Mantrap Lake resident recalled. He decided, for his mother's sake, to be sworn in for military duty.

In April 1951, at 20, he headed down to Texas, his pilot training beginning six months later.

A year later, Oct. 25, 1952 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and sent off to Luke Air Force Base in Arizona for training in gunnery.

His instructor, who he recalls as being the best he'd encounter, schooled the young pilot on what an aircraft is designed to do.

But 10 pilots were killed during the training in air to ground accidents. "It separated the men from the boys," he said of the sobering experience.

Beckel headed to Korea in February 1953, roughly six months before an armistice would be signed July 27, 1953.

His new quarters were Quonset huts, with no insulation. "It was the coldest I'd ever been in my life," the Minnesota native said.

Piloting 'the workhorse'

The Korean War was the first conflict in which jet aircraft played a central role.

Beckel would fly 38 missions, piloting an F-84 Thunderjet, a fighter bomber. The aircraft became the Air Force's primary strike aircraft during the Korean War, flying 86,408 missions and destroying 60 percent of all ground targets in the war as well as eight Soviet-built MiG fighters.

"It was known as the workhorse," Beckel recalled.

The military conflict was between the Republic of Korea, supported by the United Nations, and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the People's Republic of China, with air support from the Soviet Union.

The war, which began June 25, 1950, was the result of a political division of Korea by agreement of the victorious Allies at the conclusion of the Pacific War.

The Korean peninsula had been ruled by Japan prior to the end of the war. In 1945, following the surrender of Japan, American administrators divided the peninsula along the 38th parallel, with U.S. troops occupying the southern part and Soviet troops the northern tier.

The failure to hold free elections throughout the Korean Peninsula in 1948 deepened the division between the two sides and the North established a Communist government.

The 38th parallel increasingly became a political border between the two Koreas.

The situation escalated into open warfare when North Korean forces invaded South Korea June 25, 1950.

It was the first significant armed conflict of the Cold War.

Mission accomplished

Beckel was stationed at the K-8 base in Kun Son on the Yellow Sea, a member of the 8th Fighter Bomber Squadron known as the Black Sheep. His base was on the west side of South Korea, 100 miles south of Seoul.

Arriving in February, patience had to prevail; it would be a full month before his first flight mission. A tour of duty, he explained, was 100 missions or a year, which ever came first. "The old timers were taking all the flights. New pilots sat and did nothing," he recalled.

By the end of April, he'd completed nine missions, his flights resuming in mid-May. With rumors of peace surfacing and the conflict drawing to a close, there were few missions.

But July 26, the day before the peace treaty was to be signed, the military was given a United Nations-sanctioned 24-hour "free for all" attack on North Korea.

Beckel recalls military aircraft arriving from every direction, with a maximum effort to be directed at North Korean bridges and airfields.

He would fly three missions that day, hitting bridges and flying top cover for helicopters that were rescuing downed pilots.

He was one of four pilots sent up the MRI (main line resistance) and told to report to the joint operations center once airborne.

The JOC gave the pilots a vector and told them to head to the "punch bowl," a huge, natural amphitheater just north of the MRI.

They were to rescue a general "and what was left of the South Korean I Corps."

Flying in fingertip formation, the general pleading with the pilots to "get him out," they broke into two elements, firing six .50 caliber guns, a thousand rounds, and dropping napalm.

Their mission was accomplished, but two of the four pilots were subsequently treated in a mental institution. Debriefed after the mission, one of the lieutenants had ripped the wings off his uniform.

"Ed (the captain, Griesing) and I were the only two hawks," he said.

"A half-hour before sunset that day, we were done," Beckel recalled of July 26, 1953. The general who'd been rescued came to congratulate the two of them.

Beckel suffered no injuries during his tour of duty, but had "some close calls."

Pan Am flights cancelled

The peace treaty signed, Beckel began flying reconnaissance missions, departing from Seoul over the Sea of Japan and the 38th parallel to check on North Korea.

"They were rebuilding the day after the skirmish was over," he said.

In August, 16 of the pilots headed to Tokyo where they were to "pick up" 16 new F84Gs.

"It smelled like a new car," he said of the plane. "It had 45 minutes of flying time." This was in stark contrast to the planes to which he was accustomed, "held together with twine and duct tape."

The pilots flew the planes to Formosa where "we had the honor of signing the plane off for a can of Schlitz.

"A $300,000 aircraft traded for a 20 cent can of beer," he mused of the trade.

In late December he headed home, marrying his wife, Anne, in 1954.

The couple returned to Texas where he worked as a gunnery instructor, teaching newly commissioned pilots "what an airplane is designed to do."

In 1955, Anne pregnant with their second child, Beckel officially returned to his role as a civilian, briefly.

He joined the Air Force Reserves in 1957, serving as a liaison officer for the Air Force Academy, interviewing cadet candidates on behalf of U.S. Congressmen.

He retired from the Air Force Reserves in 1989, the "bottle caps" on his uniform defining his rank as a lieutenant colonel.

Like roughly half in his Air Force training class, he planned to become a commercial pilot, Pan Am Airlines offering him a position.

But while driving, his hand fell asleep, a condition that continued over the next few weeks.

He headed to the doctor for an x-ray, learning his body was home to extra ribs, which were pinching a nerve.

This precluded his aspiration to become a pilot.

He headed home to Austin, where he became director of purchasing for Hormel, retiring in 1992 after nearly 45 years.

He's flown a plane just six times since getting out of the service, with co-workers and friends.

One of them, Rudy Nelson, thought he'd have a bit of fun, impress this grounded aviator, and sent the plane into a 120 mph dive.

"I hate to break your bubble," Beckel told him. "But I flew faster than this on the final approach."