With the United Nations forces moving up the 38th parallel, Wonsan a major North Korean seaport is captured by the ROK I Corps on October 10th, 1950.
Wonsan Harbor was a prime target for the United States Navy. Its harbor was kept out of use by communist forces, even after they took back Wonsan in the aftermath of China’s intervention into the Korean War. As a result, the longest siege of any port in modern times was conducted by the 7th Fleet, lasting for 861 days. The siege involved the IOWA alongside many other components of the United States Navy and its assets, holding the communist forces at bay, and ultimately helping to end the war in an armistice.
-Original post by Dale McKinnon, Battleship IOWA Veteran
It was July 3rd 1951. The war had been raging on for a little over a year at this point and the stalemate along the 38th parallel was just beginning. Lieutenant Junior Grade John K Koelsch was aboard an old LST that was serving as the floating base for his helicopter squadron, Helicopter Utility Squadron 2 (Hu-2). That is when he heard the call over the radio. There was a Marine Aviator down behind enemy lines. The Marine was forced to bail out after his plane was badly damaged 35 miles south of Wonson, firmly inside the boundaries of North Korea. LTJG Koelsch wasted no time in volunteering to mount a rescue mission that would most certainly put his own life in danger.
Commissioned in 1944, LTJG Koelsch was originally trained as a torpedo bomber pilot during WW2. Koelsch was trained as a helicopter pilot in 1949 and learned to fly the HO3S-1. He had completed a combat tour in the Korean war already before requesting reassignment to HU-2 as a rescue pilot in 1951.
Just before sunset on that fateful day in July of 1951 LTJG Koelsch and his rescue crewman, AD3 George M Neal, boarded their helicopter and headed out for their mission. Thick clouds and overcast skies forced the pair to fly very low as they approached the area where they suspected the downed pilot to be. Koelsch was flying at an altitude of just 50 feet when the pair spotted the downed pilot. Under heavy gunfire LTJG Koelsch was forced to briefly leave the area before returning to complete the rescue mission. LTJG Koelsch and his crewman were able to lower a rescue harness to the injured pilot and raise him aboard the helicopter.
Disaster struck shortly after the downed pilot was brought aboard. The helicopter, which had been sustaining enemy fire for some time at this point, finally went down hard into the mountainside. LTJG Koelsch and AD3 Neal were unhurt in the crash and the rescued Marine aviator suffered no new injuries.
The three men suddenly found themselves far behind enemy lines in an area heavily infested with North Korean soldiers. LTJG Koelsch was able to lead the party East, towards the coast, and evade the enemy for 9 days. The three men were eventually captured and imprisoned by North Korean forces. LTJG Koelsch refused to cooperate with his captors. He was kept in isolation and eventually tortured before falling ill and dying after three months on October 16th 1951.
He was only 27 years old.
For his actions during the rescue attempt on July 3rd 1951, the 9 day evasion of the enemy that followed, and his time as a POW, LTJG Koelsch was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was the first helicopter pilot to be awarded our nation’s highest military honor. The citation reads as follows:
“For conspicious gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving with a Navy helicopter rescue unit. Although darkness was rapidly approaching when information was received that a Marine aviator had been shot down and was trapped by the enemy in mountainous terrain deep in hostile territory, he voluntarily flew a helicopter to the reported position of the downed airman in an attempt to effect a rescue. With an almost solid overcast concealing everything below the mountain peaks, he descended in his unarmed and vulnerable helicopter without the accompanying fighter escort to an extremely low altitude beneath the cloud level and began a systematic search. Despite the increasingly intense enemyfire, which struck his helicopter on one occasion, he persisted in his mission until he succeded in locating the downed pilot, who was suffering from serious burns on his arms and legs. While the victim was being hoisted into the aircraft, it was struck again by an accurate burst of hostile fire and crashed into the side of a mountain. Quickly extricating his crewmen and the avitor from the wreckage, he led them from the vicinity in an effort to escape from hostile troops, evading the enemy for nine days and rendering such medical attention as possible to his severely burned companion until all were captured. Lieutenant (jg) Koelsch steadfastly refused to aid his captors in any manner and served to inspire his fellow prisoners by his fortitude and consideration for others. His great personal valor and heroic spirit of self-sacrifice throughout sustain and enhance the finest tradition of the United States Naval Service."
The readiness to sacrifice life and limb to save the life of a brother in arms was not uncommon during the Korean War. Stay tuned to this blog to read more stories about the men who fought to save Korea. The Battleship IOWA lives on today as a memorial to all of the men and women who served in the US Navy. IOWA’s latest project to acquire a Korean War helicopter in order to better share the stories of valiant Navy Aviators like LTJG Koelsch can be supported by following this link- https://www.gofundme.com/2nwdpzfv/ . Please consider supporting IOWA’s latest campaign to tell the stories of the Korean War.
From a Korean War veteran:
I have been approached by an author to write a small forward to a blog he is writing about the Inchon invasion. He is looking for Korean War vets who tasted the war. I'm not sure if this is what he is looking for, but here it is.
Someone else wrote a small forward about the Korean War that encapsulates the true feelings of the Korean Vets:
"Our nation honors our sons and daughters who answered the call to defend a country they never knew and a people they never met"
We were the babies of the great depression. We were the younger brothers and cousins of the "greatest generation". As such, patriotism was our hallmark. Nevertheless, when war erupted on the Korean peninsula we were not eager to answer the call. We knew our nation was not directly threatened by the events 6,000 miles from the USA. We, like Americans throughout history wanted to get on with our lives. The war interrupted marriages, education and the job market for a "people we never met"
Yet, we answered the call and many never returned. Our nation was not sympathetic with the war. For many it was too soon after WWII. America was war weary. President Truman saw the invasion of South Korea by North Korea as an affront to freedom loving people of the world. He had warned the communists in the "Truman Doctrine" of the consequences of such action. Now Truman was forced to take action or show the world he was not ready to back up his proclamation.
I have on any number of occasions heard the descendants of the Korean vets say "Dad never talked about the war". Ditto the grandchildren. I am unable to answer why that is. I know it was true of me during most of my life. An event changed my attitude .
In 2012 the USS Iowa was made a museum. I wanted to see my old ship. When I went on her I was filled with a flood of emotions. Walking those old teak wood decks, once again viewing her guns and looking up at her superstructure proudly displaying her battle ribbons, I was filled with tears, tears of pride . For me, that ship encapsulates the best of America.
-Dale McKinnon (Navy, Korean War Era)
Facebook Group: USS Iowa... Gray Ghost of the Korean Coast