Latest News

'I'm a believer': Korean War veteran says divine intervention helped him survive

William E. Chatfield is reflected in the glass of his display case showing his service honors, medals and ranks.
William E. Chatfield is reflected in the glass of his display case showing his service honors, medals and ranks. Derik Holtmann/BND

Col. William E. Chatfield says a divine hand dealt him a successful 34 years with the Air Force, and kept him safe through three wars.

"I'm a believer in guardian angels, I really am," said Chatfield.

Chatfield said that's probably how he survived 55 combat missions during the Korean War.

In a pocket-sized book, Chatfield wrote the details of each successful night strike and close call. He and his crew were tasked with going from the Pusan Perimeter into enemy territory to block enemy supply routes.

"It was a cat and mouse game for a long time," said Chatfield, 85, of Belleville.

Chatfield's most memorable "guardian angel" moment involved a run-in with a cable the North Koreans had stretched across a canyon to bring down American planes.

U.S. intelligence mapped out the deathtraps, which were not visible at night. The enemy learned to take them down during the day and replace them at night before they moved their supplies.

Chatfield, a bombardier and navigator, was guiding the crew through "Green Nine," a narrow, twisty path. They dropped to a low altitude, closed in on some trucks and Chatfield let the bombs fly.

"We weren't shot at, at all. Then all of a sudden, everything opened up in front of us."

There were dozens of tracers on their plane, and the pilot was ready to get the plane up and out.

"For some reason, I yelled at my pilot, 'Jim! Down!' It was acting funny on the way back, but it flew."

It wasn't until they landed safely at home base that they saw a part of the vertical stabilizer was sheared off.

"It must have been a cable," Chatfield said.

Another time, Chatfield knew he lucked out: The Koreans fired back.

The intelligence unit noticed that trucks were only going so far on a particular path. After that, Chatfield kept his eye out for traffic on the route. Sure enough, five trucks pulled off the side of the road that night and Chatfield lost sight of them.

"We couldn't see anything," Chatfield said. "Then we started getting shot at. Now, they don't fire at us unless they're protecting something."

Chatfield dropped a couple of bombs and got results.

Secondary explosions meant the crew had gotten an ammunition dump, located about 30 kilometers from the front lines.

"The area burned and exploded for two days," Chatfield said. "We lucked out. A bomb went where it shouldn't go."

His 45th mission, as an experienced navigator, was to vet a novice crew.

Training during wartime was limited, but everyone was required to first fly with a veteran.

The takeoff was fine, but as the plane cruised higher and higher the right engine stopped.

Within seconds, the left one gave out, too.

"8,000 feet and that thing quits flying," Chatfield said. "Instant silence. Nothing quieter."

He wasn't prepared for such a scenario.

The engine could have stopped for multiple reasons, known and unknown.

Somehow, in those crucial few seconds of silence, Chatfield thought to use his flashlight.

And, he shined his flashlight on the problem: The fuel selector.

One of the young airmen had used the wrong tank for takeoff.

"The guy had taken off on one of those little, itty bitty tanks!"

He hit the toggle switch and the engines fired up.

It was the crew's first strike, but there were no room for mistakes.

"I was told if they showed they don't know what they're doing, bring 'em home," Chatfield said.

That crew was grounded for two more weeks of training.

The only North Korean train Chatfield ever saw was during his 51st mission.

It was a star-lit, snow-covered night, and the crew was on the "Purple" route. They were over the town of Yonghung -- a big, open plain of frozen rice patties -- and spotted a tangle of railroad tracks.

When the train came out of a tunnel, the crew did the usual.

They got behind the train, dropped three bombs. When the train got into town, they dropped three more.

"We had him boxed," Chatfield said. "The town got caught on fire. Turned out it was an evacuated town; no one was living there."

The only person Chatfield spotted was the train engineer, who hightailed it out of there.

"We wrecked the train."

By the next night, the wreckage remained, but the North Koreans had removed the engine.

Chatfield was lucky in other aspects of his military career.

He avoided combat in World War II at the start of his career and was chosen for an advisory job with the Pentagon right before Vietnam.

In 1942, Chatfield was a freshman in college. World War II started and his best buddy said, "You know, Bill, we should enlist. We should get in this war."

His friend got in the Navy. Chatfield was rejected because of his flat feet. A semester later, Chatfield was assigned to the Army infantry.

"I said, 'Sergeant, there has to be a mistake.' He said, 'Son, we don't care if you got flat feet. We just care if you got two of them.'"

His math studies got him on the fast track to navigation and aerial gunnery training. Chatfield was waiting for separation when the atomic bombs dropped.

"So there we were, 330 guys sitting in Topeka, Kansas, with nothing to do," he said.

Chatfield stayed in the reserves when he went back to school to be an insurance actuary. No one was hiring when he was done in 1949, so he got a teaching certificate that proved useful time and again.

He taught a year of high school math, then was an Air Force instructor in Texas and Iowa before he was recalled in 1951 for Korea.

His math and teaching background, combined with his combat experience, qualified him for a secret experiment at the Pentagon. He helped develop a computer program that would simulate an all-out nuclear war in the United States and Russia. They tested to see what would happen if America was attacked first, and vice versa.

Chatfield was then sent to Vietnam to continue operations evaluation and research. He spent a third of his time in a combat role in Thailand, and the rest working to evaluate the Air Force's conduct and role in Vietnam.

The last years of his career were spent at Scott Air Force Base and in Arkansas working with Air Force ROTC students.

Chatfield earned a Bronze Star and an Air Medal for meritorious service, among other recognition, for his work. He thanks his guardian angels for the rewarding career.

"It makes you feel good if you're doing the job you're supposed to be doing."

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat