William F. (Bill) Welch — 31st and 91st SRS

Period August 1949 to May 1951 — Page 1 of 2 pages

In late May, 1950, the 31st Recon Sq. conducted an Operational Readiness Test, flying out of Kadena AFB Okinawa. Immediately upon completion of the ORT, most of the squadron’s RB-29s (eight, as I recall) were flown back to the States, to Tinker AFB, OK, for complete overhaul.
By late summer of 1950, after the squadron had been moved to Yakota and then Johnson AFB in Japan, we began to receive the rebuilt RB-29s from Tinker. Our crew (1Lt Earle H. Ambrose, A/C) got one of them (#727, I think). We flew several missions with it and then two more planes arrived from the states after having been overhauled at Tinker. The two RB-29s that arrived (#810 and #815) were assigned to “C” flight, sometimes called the “Cloak and Dagger Flight”, and put under guard.

Preflight on RB-29 # 810. Note the K-30 camera port visible under the prop blade of #2 engine.

The other two planes in C flight were both ELINT (Electronic Intelligence) recon. #810 and #815 were “special photographic.” Our crew was assigned to #810. Due to the need for top secret security clearances for the crews. The same crews always flew these two planes.

Along with the aircraft, a civilian tech rep came along to train us on the “special photographic equipment.” This turned out to be a K-30 aerial camera with a focal length of 100 inches, and taking a 9x18 inch picture. The camera had been designed for B-36 use and was much too large to fit in the normal camera compartment of an RB-29. Consequently, a floor had been built into the forward bomb-bay and the camera mounted there. It lay on its side and shot out the left side of the aircraft through a camera port pointing out under number two engine. The location in the bomb-bay required the photographer to ride in the unpressurized (and unheated) bomb-bay, using an oxygen mask and heated flying suit. Our lead photographer, SSgt Curtis Franks, took on the job and I, as 2nd photo, was to man the viewfinder in the rear compartment.

Aircraft “Southern Comfort”
L to R: Charlie Mahar- Radar, Arthur D. Reitz-Navigator, Capt. Torres-pilot, Earl H. Ambrose, Aircraft Commander

The view-finder was a converted K-18 camera fitted with a ground glass on the focal plane (Where the film would normally be). I was to get the interval for proper overlap of the photos and also guide the pilot for proper aiming. We flew several training flights, developing methods (This had never been done before) with the tech rep assisting in training of the camera operations. Franks and I took turns riding the bomb-bay so that we were both qualified to operate the camera.

We finally got everything down pretty good and were getting beautiful pictures.
Then, the proverbial stuff hit the fan. In early November of 1950, one of our planes (#461813) was jumped by Mig-15s while taking pictures of Yalu River bridges. The Migs had never entered Korea until then. The tail-gunner, Sgt Harry Lavene, shot down one of the Migs, but the plane had both engines on the left side shot out. They made it all the way back to Johnson AFB on two engines, but on final approach, the left wing stalled and it went in. Everyone in the forward compartment was killed, except Harry Lavene who had been up front for the expected crash landing!

Aircraft #813 crash. Two left engines shot out by Mig-15. Made it back to Johnson AFB, Japan. Crashed attempting to land.
November 9, 1950

Our crew was immediately alerted to fly the first combat mission with 810 and the monster camera. We would go up to the Yalu and shoot pictures across the river at Antung airfield where the Migs were based. At briefing, we were told: “No sweat, you’re going to have a fighter escort when you get up there.” We met our escort just north of Seoul: Three P-51s!

We were to have a major setback at this point. When we got to high altitude and started leaving contrails, the contrails totally obscured the view-finder in the rear compartment. I couldn’t see a thing. We had never left contrails on any of our practice flights so were not aware of the problem. With some good guesswork by Sgt Franks in the bomb-bay to set the interval, and some superb flying by Lt. Ambrose, we got the pictures just before being jumped by Mig-15s (The left scanner had watched them with binoculars all the way from take-off). The P-51 pilots also did a superb job of flying. They attacked the Migs head on and kept them busy while we peeled off and headed for the Yellow Sea.

RB-29 #727 enroute to Korea, late 1950

A high speed dive and some evasive action got us away safely. (Although later Lt. Ambrose was kidded about having the only B-29 with swept-back wings from exceeding the max airspeed red-line) We made later runs up “Mig-Alley”, but by then, we had F-86s for escorts.

We overcame the problem of the contrails by designing a gun-sight sort of view finder in the aircraft commander’s left cockpit window. He could then align the wings for a proper shot by the K-30 in the bomb-bay. The idea was that most of our missions would be flying along coastlines and the pilot could keep the coast in proper alignment with the jury-rigged sight.

Our crew went on to fly many successful missions in 810. The contrail problem occurred infrequently, so everything worked well. We photographed practically every mile of coastline from Hong Kong to Port Arthur. And from Vladivostok up to Kamchatka and back. We were frequently intercepted by fighters, Mig-15s, along the Chinese coast (We once got a good K-30 shot of one flying about a mile off our wing) and Soviet prop-driven Yak-9s and LA-5s up north of Japan. We managed to get away in every case.

Go to page 2 — Bill Welch Recollections

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