Latest News

'We had a couple of close calls': Jim Corcoran took to the air during his time in Korea

Jim Corcoran
Jim Corcoran Derik Holtmann/BND

As he grew up in Henderson, Minn., Jim Corcoran dreamed of becoming a famous flier like his idol, Charles Lindbergh.

"He made his famous flight from New York to Paris in 1927, the year I was born," Corcoran said of Lindbergh. "He grew up in Minnesota and so did I. I read his first book in grade school."

As a high schooler, he believed it was his destiny to fight in World War II against the Axis. So he signed up for the Army during his junior year with thoughts of joining the U.S. Army Air Force.

"I couldn't wait to get into the military," Corcoran said. "I signed the papers and I was ready to go. But, when I turned 18 in 1945, the war was coming to an end. I had very mixed emotions. I was almost sorry that the war was over and I didn't get to participate."

The Army discovered Corcoran took typing in high school, so it sent the teenager to Europe as a clerk-typist in the American occupation force. He filed paperwork when he was on the job and explored Europe's bombed-out cities when he was off.

"The war had been over for about a year," Corcoran said. "But in Berlin I could still smell the decay of rotting flesh."

While he didn't actually fire a shot in World War II, Corcoran earned a victory medal for his service. And he got a chance to go to college on the GI bill, studying math and science.

"I got an ROTC commission and was in the first graduating class of the Air Force ROTC in 1950," Corcoran said. "I still wanted to get back to the Air Force and fly."

Despite his experience and education, Corcoran was again denied his dream.

"My eyes weren't good enough to be a pilot, so I became a navigator," Corcoran said. "It was probably for the best. Later in life I did some private flying and I learned that I had no business trying to fly a high-performance aircraft."

Corcoran starting training to guide reconnaissance missions in August 1950. He almost missed a second war -- barely getting in before the end of the Korean War. He arrived at Kimpo Air Base in late 1952 and flew 45 missions before the war ended in 1953.

"We never really encountered the enemy," Corcoran said. "We occasionally saw some flak but we never took any anti-aircraft fire or had any problems with enemy fighters. Our Sabre pilots had pretty much taken care of them by the time I got there."

Corcoran's Douglas A-6 Invader flew unchallenged over enemy targets where it took reconnaissance photos of previously bombed targets to see if enough damage was done or if they had to be attacked again. Usually his crew flew over airports to check for bomb crater damage.

"We flew at night, but it was no secret that we were there," Corcoran said. "Our pilot would drop a series of flash bombs over the target to light it up so we could take pictures. So they knew right where we were."

Even Bed Check Charlie, the name Americans gave to North Korean pilots who flew antiquated, slow bi-planes that were too slow to be engaged by jet fighters and dropped small bombs on NATO air bases, was scarce by the end of the war.

"It was scary when he came around because you could hear that put-put-put of that plane and there really wasn't anywhere to hide," Corcoran said. "We had a couple of close calls. But nothing serious."

The most significant injury that happened to one of Corcoran's buddies came on the ground.

"We had a big tent, sort of like what you would see on the TV show 'M*A*S*H,' with the big oil stove in the middle," Corcoran said. "It would get pretty cold there, but that stove did a pretty good job of keeping us warm.

"But one night, after quite a few drinks, one of the guys stumbled in, put his hand on the stove and got quite a bad burn," Corcoran said. "He was disqualified from flying for quite a long period of time."

Corcoran came home from Korea in May 1953.

"They signed the truce in June, but a lot of people got stuck there after the fighting ended," Corcoran said. "A lot of people are still there."

After the war, Corcoran became a navigation instructor at Ellington Air Force Base in Texas. He went to Penn State where he earned a bachelor's degree in meteorology.

"I was dropped off here by the Air Force," Corcoran said when asked how he ended up in the metro-east. He retired from the military in 1968, bought a house in Belleville and taught computer programming at Belleville Area College. He retired from full-time teaching at the school in 1988.

While he did his duty in two stints in the military spread over two wars, Corcoran said he's not the one in his family who deserved medals and honors.

"The real hero is my wife, Jeanne," Corcoran said. "Because when I was in the military, we lived all over the country and she had to take care of all of our kids while I was away."

The couple had nine children, the first born in 1951 and the last in 1964. They now have 14 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.

Related stories from Belleville News-Democrat