Answer Man

Did the U.S. really use helicopters during the Korean War as depicted in ‘M*A*S*H’?

The helicopter picks up the supplies and takes off with its load for the ROK troops on the north side of the Pukhan River on June 20, 1953 in South Korea.
The helicopter picks up the supplies and takes off with its load for the ROK troops on the north side of the Pukhan River on June 20, 1953 in South Korea. AP

Q: Two questions: Did the United States actually use helicopters during the Korean War? I know the TV show “M*A*S*H” shows them constantly, but, being only 6-9 years old at the time, I now wonder whether that is accurate. Also, is the USS Repose still in service? In 1966, I served as a hospital corpsman on this ship.

Ed French, of Belleville

A: You’re probably all too aware that TV and movies sometimes take liberties with the truth to make a better story, but this is not one of those times. Ask any military historian, and they’ll tell you that helicopters provided invaluable assistance in Korea for tasks ranging from reconnaissance to whisking the wounded off the battlefield

As you suggest, that may sound a little surprising to you considering the extremely limited role they had played up until that time. For example, the Marines tried and rejected the Pitcairn OP-1 autogyro, a fixed-wing aircraft with a rotor, for missions in 1932 while fighting guerrillas in Nicaragua, according to an article on the helicopter’s military history by Otto Kreisher at historynet.com. The Army bought its first helicopter in January 1941, but did not use them in combat until May 1944, when an Army chopper picked up four airmen behind enemy lines in Burma.

But in Korea, those whirleybirds were in the spotlight almost from the start. When United Nations forces were working to secure the Pusan perimeter in the late summer of 1950, the U.S. 1st Provisional Marine Brigade swooped in to bolster Army and Korean troops defending this area in the southeast corner of South Korea.

Guy McSweeney, a pilot who flew during the Korean War, compares and contrasts a P51, which was flown during World War II, to a P80, which was flown during the Korean War.

Unfamiliar with the territory, Brig. Gen. Edward Craig climbed aboard a Sikorsky helicopter and took off to scout the region, direct the lead battalion, pick a spot for his command post and meet with his Army superiors. Soon choppers were delivering water and other critical supplies to Marines struggling over the hilly terrain. As Kreisher noted, it was a clear sign of bigger things to come for the helicopter in combat.

“Fortunately, Marine helicopters attached to VMO-6 were always available for observation, communication and control,” Craig later recalled. “These aircraft made my day. Without them, I do not believe we could have had the success we did.”

But as you see on “M*A*S*H,” its biggest contribution may have been giving untold thousands of wounded American troops a better chance of survival. Early in 1951, Army helicopters began to fly medical evacuation missions, sparing critically wounded soldiers the long and punishing ambulance rides over the country’s primitive road system.

Dubbed the “Angel of Mercy” by those at the front, it is estimated that the H-13 Sioux helicopter — which you see in the background of the TV show’s opening credits — transported 18,000 of the war’s total 23,000 casualties to people like Hawkeye Pierce and Trapper John at the mobile Army surgical hospitals. As a result, the death rate of evacuated patients before they reached MASH units fell from 4.5 percent during World War II to 2.5 percent during Korea. The work took stress off ground troops who otherwise would have had to provide additional care for the wounded. It also helped to perfect medevac procedures for both future wars and civilian emergency rescue.

“Few technical innovations were equal in importance (in saving lives) to the growing use of the helicopter for medical evacuations,” one Army history declared.

Sadly, I can’t give you a similar cheery report about the ship on which you once served. the USS Repose — AH (hospital ship) 16. With two strikes already against it, it struck out in 1970.

Built as Marine Beaver, a type C4 class ship, in 1943, it was launched Aug. 8, 1944, before being converted to a Navy hospital ship and commissioned the following year. With a bed capacity of 750 and a crew of 564, the 11,000-ton ship spent the next four years transporting casualties among Pacific ports while also supporting occupation forces in northern China before being decommissioned in January 1950.

Just eight months later, however, it was recommissioned and spent the next four years ferrying the wounded from Korea to Japanese ports before being decommissioned again just before Christmas in 1954. Then after collecting cobwebs for 11 years, the Navy cleaned off the mothballs again so it could serve five years supporting the Vietnam War, where, as you may know from your experience, it gained the nickname “Angel of the Orient.” During that time it would treat more than 9,000 battle casualties and was on station when the horrible fire aboard the USS Forrestal in 1967 killed 134 and injured another 161.

But on March 14, 1970, it left Vietnam and was decommissioned for the last time two months later. They tried to use her as a hospital annex at the Long Beach Navel Hospital, but this was not economical, so your good ship Repose was sold for scrap in 1975.

Today’s trivia

How many years did the legendary John Wooden coach at UCLA before he finally won an NCAA tournament game (not counting regional third-place games)?

Answer to Monday’s trivia: “See ya later, alligator.” “After while, crocodile.” If animals could talk, the only place in the world you would hear that conversation would be in the Florida Everglades because experts say that’s the only place in the world where alligators and crocodiles coexist. More fun facts: About one of every three Floridians (7 million) rely on the Everglades for their water because, rather than a swamp or bog, it’s actually a slow-moving river, whose average depth is 4-5 feet. An average of 75 inches of rain falls every year in the Everglades, which Native Americans called “Pahayokee” — “River of Grass.”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer

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