A Free-Range Kid

Circles close in such mysterious ways.  Ken Burns’ “The Vietnam War” got me thinking a 54about overlaps and a place.  The possible overlaps that came to mind were The Korean Conflict and The Vietnam War and the place is the USAF’s Kisarazu Air Base in Japan’s Chiba Prefecture where I lived from early spring 1954 to mid-summer 1957.  The question was where was I when such-and-such took place and why had my father – then a USAF Senior Pilot – been assigned to the 2723rd Air Base Squadron at Kisarazu?

And the result is a series of OMG! moments.

From birth to age 18, I mostly lived on Air Force bases and I was what we might today call a Free-Range Child, meaning that I could come and go at will and unless I was in sight my parents had no idea where I was or what I was up to and there was always time to get involved in things I absolutely should not have, whether on my own or with the help of adults who found it (me?) amusing, such as a group of enlisted sailors assigned to the 6408th Air Depot Group at Kisarazu AB from whom at age 10 I was learning the finer points of Cassino.  Of course, those guys had better things to do than entertain or be entertained by a burr-headed Air Force brat and an Officer’s brat at that, but at the time I had no idea what they did for a living and only thought it odd that that the US Navy was there at all. I mean, it was the Kisarazu Air Base, right?

Well, yes and no.

MOMENT 1:  What at first was and is again known as Kisarazu Air Field was established in 1936 as a base and a fully-fitted port facility for the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service and was home to the Kisarazu Air Group, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s first dedicated land-based bomber unit, which was heavily involved during World War II.  It was also used for training, and for the testing of experimental aircraft, including Japan’s first jet-powered aircraft, the Nakajima Kikka (Orange Blossom), the prototype of which flew only once and that for only twenty minutes on 7 Aug 1945, the day after Little Boy was delivered to Hiroshima.

a kikka
Captured prototype of Japan’s first jet fighter. Now an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Chantilly, VA

MOMENT 2:  On 16 Aug 1945, Japan’s leaders announced that their delegates for a conference in Manila at which they were to be informed by Gen. MacArthur and his staff as to “certain requirements for carrying into effect the terms of surrender.”, meaning the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, which was later to be signed aboard the battleship Missouri at anchor in Tokyo Bay, had been selected and would leave Tokyo on 19 Aug 1945.  Headed by Lt. Gen. Torashiro Kawabe, Vice-Chief of the Army General Staff, the

Chariots of the Defeated
Chariots of the Defeated

sixteen-man Japanese delegation boarded two white, green-crossed, and disarmed Japanese Navy medium bombers and departed secretly from Kisarazu Air Field, which in September 1945 was taken over by the USAF, renamed Kisarazu Air Base and did double-duty as a service point for the US Naval Air Transport Service (NATS) until the unit was decommissioned in May 1946.

Manila Conference delegation boarding flight. Torashiro Kawabe in center.
Manila Conference delegation boarding flight. Torashiro Kawabe in center.


MOMENT 3:  From its surrender in August 1945 until the signing of the Treaty of San Francisco (aka Treaty of Peace with Japan) on 8 Sep 1952, the occupation and redirection of Japan economically, militarily, and politically proceeded in accordance with protocols and critical paths set out in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Operation Blacklist, which included the take-over of existing Japanese assets such as Kisarazu Air Field and it seems that but for the 25 Jun 1950 outbreak of hostilities in Korean peninsula, Kisarazu AB might never have been of much interest to anyone.


MOMENT 4:  From mid-1950, the 6408th Air Depot Group assigned to Kisarazu AB was responsible for the reception, refurbishment, and repair of most of the fighter aircraft destined for the Korean theater, including the F-86 Sabre swept-wing air-to-air jet fighters which did battle against Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15s in the infamous MiG Alley near the mouth of the Yalu.  By July 1953, however, the F-86 series was nearing mid-life and was being replaced by the follow-on F-100 Super Sabre series, which had a range nearly 500 miles greater than the F-86.  So, the 6408th Air Depot also processed F-86s being transferred from one air unit to another, surplussed, sold to one ally or another, or decommissioned.

F-86 Sabre and MiG 15 at air show.
F-86 Sabre and MiG 15 at air show.


MOMENT 5:  Korea, of course, wasn’t the only post-war hot-spot in Asia.  At the WWII allies’ Potsdam Conference in July 1945, Vietnam had been split at the 16th parallel for the purpose of disarming and removing Japanese forces, with the Chinese Nationalists being responsible in the north and the British in the south.  Also, the attending French delegation’s demand that all of their pre-war colonies be returned once the Japanese had been removed was granted, an act which the leaders of all of what in french was then known as Indochine – Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia – had been assured would not happen if they joined with Allied forces in driving the Japanese out of their lands, a betrayal which resulted in their turning to Russia and China for help in gaining the promised independence.  And we had arrived in Japan around the time of the fall of Dien Bien Phu in May 1954.

Red Flag Over Dien Ben Phu 17 May 1954
Red Flag Over Dien Ben Phu 17 May 1954

MOMENT 6:  After many years of work on the family tree and family history, I now know my father’s assignment to Kisarazu AB had nothing to do with his being a pilot – He had never qualified in jet aircraft of any kind.  In fact, but for a brief stint in Air-Sea rescue after he completed his forty-nine wartime missions in the Southwest Pacific Area and rotated stateside, it was a challenge to get as much flight time as required to remain eligible for flight pay, which was a substantial part of his income.  Every other posting he had was related to the technology of Cold War electronic intelligence-gathering and analysis, for which he was trained at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma, Keesler AFB in Mississippi, and Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio.  So, what took him to Japan was the need to keep an electronic eye on China, Russia, North Korea, and, as of May 1954, VIETNAM.

Moment 7:  The advent of the F-100 Super Sabre proved to be a boon for the C.I.A. and the military intelligence services which were in ever more desperate need of a reliable long-range surveillance platform for use in both europe and asia.  The F-86 series had the requisite speed to get in and out of enemy territory, but even laden with nothing more than drop tanks it was at best a medium range traveler carrying what amounted to an after-market camera system.  In fact, a laden F-100 had a range nearly 500 miles greater than a laden F-86.  So, given the proven capabilities of the F-100 in its role as both an air-to-air fighter and a ground attack bomber, the manufacturer – North American Aviation – decided to see if they could configure a variant which met the stated surveillance requirements of the moment and in a matter of three weeks they had a proposal in hand for development of the RF-100A which carried only high-resolution cameras and the proposal was accepted.

MOMENT 8:  Now, harken back to the beginning of this recounting and recall the burr-headed free-range kid who had been befriended by a bunch of sailors who spent a lot of their down time playing Cassino.

They all knew that they’d be responsible for an RF-100A Super Sabre (dubbed the “Slick Chick” because of the absence of even defensive armaments) which was on the way and on the day it arrived I happened to be playing Cassino with them in their barracks day room.  When we got the word that it had landed and been parked, we all ran out the door, across the street, through a hangar, and out onto the apron where it sat.

The actual RF-100A I saw – Tail #31546. Fast, high-flying, long-ranging, and defenseless.

It was a brilliantly shiny beauty and I had just gotten close enough to touch it when an officer with hair afire headed across the apron at flank speed while at the top of his lungs demanding answers to questions along the lines of “What the fuck do you people think you’re doing?” and “What’s that goddamn kid doing here?” and “Who the hell gave you men permission to be here?” and just generally reading us the Riot Act, taking all names but mine, and readying himself to kick asses while making it clear that my companions’ heads were gonna roll.

None of that stuff, however, rises to the level of an OMG! moment, but what comes next does.

My research led me to a reconnaissance aircraft history site in the UK – The Spyflight Website – where I found an accounting for the distribution of all six RF-100A ever manufactured and 62 years on I know that the one I had been about to touch was F-100A 53-1546 which was delivered to the 6408th Air Depot group in May 1955.  What’s more, I can now trace its entire history.  Click on the Spyflight link below.

The Six