This story is almost beyond belief, but it happened. It was real, and yet, it could be classified under the concept of what might be called a miracle. What could have been yet another tragedy of war, turned out to be what my father used to sardonically call a “successful accident.”
The incident I will describe here happened on September 17, 1950, in the early days of the Korean War. But before I get to the details of the events, a little background.
The main character of the story is 25 year old Navy Ensign Edward Jackson. He was a graduate of the Naval Aviation College Program (NCAP) at the University of South Carolina. He was a strapping young man, 6ft tall and 195 lbs and played tight end for the Gamecocks of USC while in that program. Later, when he was in preflight instruction school at Chapel Hill, NC. he played for an undefeated Navy football squad that was coached by a man who would become well known in football history, Paul “Bear” Bryant.
In his advanced flight training program he trained in the F4U-4 Corsairs, transitioning then to F8F-2 Bearcats and finally to the F9F-2 Panther fighter jets. He would then be deployed to the VF-112 unit serving on the USS Philippine Sea aircraft carrier.
At the beginning of the Korean War, the aircraft carriers that were hastily deployed to Korea were still new to the transition from prop fighters to jet powered fighters. Things were not going smoothly as the carrier flight deck crews and the pilots were at the lead edge of training and many mistakes were being made and many casualties were being experienced.
In September of 1950, Ensign Jackson was a flight leader for a flight of F9F-2 Panthers off of the USS Philippine Sea. His wingman was a 22 year old pilot named Ensign Dayl Crow, a graduate of the same NCAP USC program that Jackson had been in before. Jackson was lead on a mission to strafe an airfield near Pyongyang, the North Korean capital that day. When they were over the airfield they found few targets as the primitive field was already strewn with destroyed aircraft remains. So they headed south along the Han River toward Seoul, hoping to find better targets.
As they were flying along the Han River toward the Yellow Sea, Jackson spotted a line of maybe 75 small boats crossing the river. He went down to about 200 feet to see if he could get a better look at whether they were civilian or enemy boats. He started taking small arms fire from the boats. Jackson took his F9F-2 Panther down literally down to the deck at about 50ft to strafe the boats. Though the North Koreans did not have anti-aircraft weapons capabilities, they did have a certain ingenuity of necessity that they brought to bear.
What Jackson could not see until it was too late was an “aerial booby trap,” a heavy cable of wire that had been strung across the river. It happened before he could react. The cable shredded his starboard wingtip tank and it began spilling fuel rapidly. When the cable snapped from the speed of his plane breaking through it, it snapped across his canopy, destroying his windscreen and side panels. It sent shards of plexiglass at his face. His goggles were instantly dislodged, while the glass shrapnel from his canopy cut into his nose and above the eyebrows. A long, deep gash was cut across his left cheek, almost to his ear and he was bleeding profusely. To make things worse, he was knocked unconscious by the blast of the shattering canopy and the force of wind coming at him through the hole in his windscreen.
Jackson’s wingman, Ensign Crow, noticed something was wrong because he was coming up on Jackson’s plane way too fast. When he came alongside Jackson’s plane he could see the damage. The remainder of the canopy was sprayed with blood.
Crow shouted into his radio, “Power, Jack! Power.”
Jackson came to, but was blinded by blood. His instincts kicked in with the plane’s controls, he shouted back to Crow, “For God’s sake, Dayl, I’m blind.”
Who knows what happens within us in situations like this. Crow remained focused on keeping Jackson awake and calmly kept giving Jackson directions and commands to keep Jackson flying. He directed him all the way back to the USS Philippine Sea, but then the worst part was still before them. They had to somehow get Jackson down on that postage stamp in the middle of the ocean that is a carrier deck.
At that time another voice came through their radios. It was the voice of Lt. Douglas R. Haygood. He told Crow to keep talking to Jackson. Then came the coordinated interaction between Crow and Haygood on the flight deck. Jackson, still blinded by the blood in his eyes, was able to bring the damaged Panther to a successful landing on the deck.
Jackson’s instincts and knowledge of the plane came in to play, too. He listened carefully to the landing instructions, making all of the corrections commanded by the flight deck officer. He came down, hit the deck, caught the number 5 wire with his tailhook, pulled back on the stick and came to a stop.
The flight deck crew lifted Jackson out of the plane. He insisted he could walk, but collapsed as soon as they let go of him. They took Jackson on a stretcher to sick bay where he received 36 stitches and a blood transfusion. He had experienced almost fatal blood loss.
Jackson’s injuries involved no permanent damage to his eyes, but he was left with an ugly scare across his left cheek. Even more interestingly, within a couple of weeks, both he and his F9F-2 Panther were back on the flight line and back in business.
The phrase, “God works in mysterious ways,” comes to mind here. What happened to Ensign Edward Jackson’s fighter jet and the injuries he sustained had all the real possibilities of being fatal. That his wingman remained calm and clear with his instructions, and that Jackson, who had been knocked unconscious and blinded could still manage to control the airplane, and that the flight deck officer’s skills and directions informed and engaged Jackson’s own skills and instincts to end this ordeal with essentially a “successful accident,” is as close to miraculous as anything I can imagine. Though this story has the kind of ending that would seem to be the stuff of fiction or Hollywood; it was real, thanks to calm nerves, instinct and skills, luck, and a bit of miracle.