Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Fighter Pilot MIA in Korea

(This is the second guest post from Jim Escalle about his uncle, Second Lieutenant Jimmy L. Escalle. The picture above is the cover of the book that Jim has written about his uncle.)

My uncle, Second Lieutenant Jimmy L. Escalle, dreamed of becoming a pilot since he was five years old. Too young to fly during World War II, his dream became a reality soon after the Korean War began.

He was born November 7, 1929, in Fresno, California, and grew up in Earlimart, a small farming community 60 miles south of Fresno.

He lived in a small, two-room house that he shared with his father, mother and younger brother, Robert, who also became an Air Force pilot. Both brothers learned an American work ethic from their father that displayed itself both on the farm and in the classroom.

Since there was no high school in Earlimart, Jim and his brother took the bus to Delano, located about seven miles south of Earlimart. During his four years at Delano High School, Jim played football and baseball. He was the second baseman on Delano’s varsity team.

In his senior year he made all-league as left end for the varsity football team, which for the first time in school history had a perfect record. The undefeated 1946 Delano High School football team outscored their opponents 238-25 for the season, a record that stands today.

On June 25, 1950, less than two weeks after Jim graduated from Bakersfield Junior College, the armed forces of communist North Korea made a surprise and unprovoked crossing of the 38th parallel to invade South Korea.

Thinking the war would not last too long, Jim made plans to attend UC Berkeley so he could continue his education. He wanted to become an aeronautical engineer.

But only one semester into his studies, he received his “greetings” from his Uncle Sam. At first, he didn’t know what he was going to do. He wanted to serve in Korea, but he didn’t want to do it on the ground, sloshing around in the mud as an infantryman.

He applied for the Aviation Cadet program with the Air Force.

While waiting for a pilot training class to become available, the deadline to report for the Army was getting closer. Like a lot of his contemporaries at the time, he signed up with the Air Force as a private. This way the Army could not touch him while he waited for a flight class.

Jim joined the Air Force in April 1951 and completed basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas. Then he was sent to Connally Air Force Base in Waco, Texas, for a couple of months until he was assigned to Pilot Training Class 52-F.

He took his basic pilot training at Columbus Air Force Base, Mississippi, where he learned to master the North American T-6 “Texan.” It was a two-seat, dual-controlled, single-engine trainer with a powerful 600-horsepower radial engine that could produce a top speed of 210 miles per hour.

Joe B. Cunningham, Jim’s flight instructor, called Jim “a natural pilot” and said he was one of the top students.

Advanced pilot training took place at Webb Air Force Base, Texas. There Jim flew both the T-28 Trojan and T-33 Shooting Star jet trainer.

From the first day of flight training, Jim had wanted to fly jets. He studied hard and listened to every word of his instructors, and just like at Columbus, the instructors said Jim simply had an instinctive knack.

Glen Croshaw, a fellow pilot who was in advanced training with Jim, agreed with this assessment. “It was a well known fact among all the cadets in the class that Jim was an excellent pilot, better than most of the instructors.”

Croshaw believed Jim was on a mission ever since the first day he started his pilot training. He said, “Jim had one thing on his mind, and that was to strap an F-86 to his butt and go find a MiG to shoot down.”

After graduating from pilot training on September 13, 1952, Jim was assigned to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada for gunnery school. He was on what was called the “pipeline to Korea.” It was at Nellis where he first flew the F-86 Sabre.

Jim arrived in Korea at Suwon Air Base, designated by the Air Force as K-13, in February 1953. He was assigned to the 36th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, 8th Fighter-Bomber Group, which was flying the F-80C Shooting Star at the time. But the unit soon made the transition to the F-86F Sabre.

Every pilot in the Air Force wanted to fly the F-86. It was the sleek, swept-wing fighter winning out over the Soviet-built MiG-15 in the skies of Korea. The 8th Group was using the Sabre as a fighter-bomber, but the pilots knew they would have the perfect weapon if drawn into air-to-air action.

It was the goal of every pilot to log 100 combat missions, which was the standard tour of duty in Korea. Jim even gave up a scheduled R&R in Japan to fly missions.

He dropped 1,000-pound bombs on tactical targets, skip-bombed dams at low altitudes, went on armed reconnaissance patrols and dive-bombed enemy troops. He also went on a few MiG Alley sweeps near the Yalu River, and on one occasion saw some MiGs.

On close-air-support missions where he would have to drop bombs or fire his guns on the front lines, a forward air control T-6 Mosquito usually would fire white phosphorus rockets called “Willie Petes” in the area to pinpoint the location of the target.

When the Chinese army broke through the front lines on June 15, 1953, Jim was in the air before dawn and did not land until long after dark. He got four missions that day, bombing targets in the daytime and strafing trucks that were moving behind the lines at night.

The flak at night was so heavy that he described tracer bullets as being “like a Fourth of July in the late evening.”

As soon as he started down for the trucks, the Chinese would open up with their antiaircraft guns from both sides of the valley.

It was very dangerous work. However, it was also the normal routine of the fighter-bomber pilot.

The pilots of the 36th FBS “Flying Fiends,” commanded by Major Robert C. Ruby, flew 121 sorties that day, setting a record that still stands.

Four days later, while flying as element leader on an armed reconnaissance mission in North Korea, Jim disappeared and was never seen or heard from again.

In a few brief months, Jim had flown over 40 combat missions and was awarded an Air Medal. He also received the Soldier’s Medal for putting his own life in danger when an accident occurred one day on the flight line.

He was well-liked by other pilots and viewed by his squadron commander as having a bright future. He was posthumously promoted to first lieutenant.

The Korean War ended in an armistice on July 27, 1953. His squadron, now designated the 36th Fighter Squadron, is still on duty at Osan Air Base, Korea.

In 1992 Delano High School’s Class of ’47 established a college scholarship in Jim Escalle’s name to honor his service to his country.

In the summer of 2004, as a permanent memorial to Jim’s contribution in the field of aviation, his name was submitted to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center to be placed on the Wall of Honor.

His name can now be seen alongside other F-86 Sabre pilots who defended freedom in Korea, as well as those who defended it elsewhere.

To read more information about my upcoming book on my uncle’s life, visit my Facebook page at www.facebook.com/unforgottenhero. Here, you can read the book's table of contents, excerpts from two chapters, and some of the endorsements I have received. You can also see photos and videos.

Related articles can be read on my blog at http://unforgottenhero.blogspot.com

Read the first post by Jim Escalle about his uncle.


Phyllis Zimbler Miller is the author of the novel MRS. LIEUTENANT and the co-author of the eBook technothriller LT. COMMANDER MOLLIE SANDERS. Phyllis is the co-founder of the marketing consulting company Miller Mosaic LLC, which works with clients to attract more business. Read her posts at the company's social media marketing blog.

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