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Combat Airlift Help Dates Back to Korea

  • Published
  • By Mark Wilderman
  • 314th Airlift Wing Historian
On Dec. 7, 1950, an event unique in the history of combat airlift occurred in the skies over North Korea.  For the first and only time in military history, a bridge was airdropped to ground forces below.

On Oct. 19, 1950, hundreds of thousands of communist Chinese  troops of the "People's Volunteer Army" began slipping across the Yalu River into North Korea to launch a surprise counterattack on United Nation forces nearing the Sino-North Korean border.

After a losing battle against the Chinese in November, on Dec. 6, 1950, approximately 30,000 UN troops began to breakout of the Chosin Reservoir area in a fighting withdrawal to the Port of Hungnam, on the Sea of Japan in order to join the U.S. Eighth Army defending the 38th parallel.  The units included elements of the United States 1st Marine Division, 7th Infantry Division, Republic of Korea I Corps, and the British 41st Royal Marine Commando.

Throughout the period, which became known as the Battle of Chosin Reservoir, C-119 Flying Boxcar aircraft of the U.S. Air Force Far East Combat Cargo Command, including the 314th Troop Carrier Group (now the 314th Airlift Wing), airdropped ammunition, rations and fuel to the surrounding UN troops operating in temperatures as low as -35 degrees Fahrenheit.

The single road south from the Chosin Reservoir to Hungnam was cut when the Chinese 9th Army destroyed the road bridge at the hydroelectric dam near Koto-ri, making escape impossible for the surrounding UN troops, or so the Chinese thought.

The UN ground commander in the Chosin Reservoir area contacted the Far East Combat Cargo Command to request the aerial delivery of a replacement bridge, a feat that had never been performed before (or since). Although only four M2 Treadway Bridge sections were needed to repair the bridge, eight bridge sections were requested.

On Dec. 6, 1950, a trial drop of a single 2,900-pound M-2 Treadway Bridge span was made from a 314th Troop Carrier Group C-119 Flying Boxcar at the captured Yonpo (K-27) airfield in North Korea. Six 24-foot diameter G-1 type cargo parachutes hooked into a D-ring through a web were rigged to the load. The load was dropped over Yonpo airfield from 800 feet at a speed of 140 knots.

When five of the six parachutes failed to open, (the sixth opened only partially), the 4,000-pound load fell to the ground like a brick, damaging the bridge section beyond repair. After examining the damaged load, the riggers concluded that the six parachutes failed to open because the web became tangled and broke.

With no time left for further tests, the riggers configured eight Treadway Bridge sections, each with two larger 48-foot diameter G-5 cargo parachutes, and loaded the 4,000-pound items onto eight C-119s from the 314th TCG's 61st Troop Carrier Squadron, the ancestor of Little Rock Air Force Base's current 61st Airlift Squadron.

The following day, three of the loaded C-119s took off from Yonpo airfield five minutes apart.  The first three bridge sections were dropped successfully from 800 feet at 120 knots on the UN drop zone a half mile north of Koto-ri. The next five C-119s then took off from Yonpo airfield and successfully dropped their bridge sections on the UN drop zone one mile southwest of Koto-ri. Six of the eight bridge sections landed undamaged within the small UN drop zones, one was damaged, and one fell into Chinese-controlled territory. After clearing the surrounding slopes of Chinese troops, the UN ground forces immediately used four of the eight Treadway Bridge sections delivered by the C-119s to repair the bridge across the 1500-foot-deep gorge at Koto-ri.

The bridge was replaced by combat engineers on Dec. 9, 1950, and back in operation. Within three hours, the 30,000 UN troops were moving south again toward the port of Hungnam with their vehicles and their wounded.

The last of the UN troops successfully left the Funchlin Pass toward Hungnam on Dec. 11, 1950. Thanks to the determination of the defenders of the Chosin Reservoir to fight and survive in brutal combat conditions surrounded by the enemy, and a "little help" from above, the 30,000 UN troops were able to break out of a seemingly hopeless encirclement, inflicted crippling casualties on the enemy, and completed a fighting withdrawal in good order.