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Ashland man recalls end of Korean War

For one long minute 50 years ago today, John Adams didn't know if his plane would survive the intense antiaircraft fire.

I kept thinking about the foreign films I wouldn't be able to see, recalls the retired teacher living in Ashland.

I wasn't particularly frightened. I was just thinking about those foreign movies I hadn't seen.

Adams, 74, was an Air Force first lieutenant flying his 33rd and final reconnaissance mission over North Korea on the night of July 27, 1953.

That was the night the armistice went into effect, declaring what history has shown has been an uneasy truce.

— More than 37,000 Americans were killed or reported missing in the Korean War, which began on June 25, 1950. Another 140,000 South Korean soldiers and 3,200 soldiers from 15 countries representing the United Nations also died.

And hundreds of thousands of North Koreans and Chinese soldiers perished.

Adams ' no relation to the presidential Adamses ' stresses that he was no hero. That label should be used sparingly for the ground-pounders and others who endured hell on Earth, he says.

But he figures he survived a hair-raising moment in history.

Adams was part of the 12th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, known as the Black Bird, flying out of the Kimpo Air Base about 25 miles south of the demilitarized zone.

We had about 33 missions ' all at night, he says. You got to go home when you had 40.

The crew very much wanted to go home, considering the war was ending. But they were asked to make one more run up north to check on the success of earlier bombing raids.

They flew in World War II B-26 bombers modified to take photographs at night.

We dropped photo flash bombs to illuminate the targets so we could see what damage the bombers had done during the day, Adams explains. When we went by, a camera on the bottom of the plane would take photographs.

Unlike the strategical bombers who dropped bombs from around 30,000 feet, his squadron had to drop in relatively close to get useful photographs.

As a navigator, Adams' job was to activate a device known as a Norton bomb sight used during World War II.

When I activated it, it took over like an automatic pilot ' took control of the plane, he says. The plane would go straight in and automatically drop the photo flash bomb.

In essence, he was making a foreign film.

Like a plane landing, you had to go straight in ' straight down the chute, he adds. We always flew without any lights. Our plane was black. They often didn't see us.

When they did, the ack-ack was a little thicker, a little closer.

It was an eerie thing to go in there.

The last run on the last night of the war was to a point some 100 miles into North Korea near the capital of Pyongyang.

The crew, consisting of the pilot and two navigators, took off about 9 p.m. Adams was in the back of the plane with his bomb sight.

We all had parachutes strapped on, he says. But I was in the back through a tiny little door that was difficult to get through very fast. And we all knew the truce was going into effect that night.

Having survived the other missions, they didn't want to become a historic footnote as the last flight to be shot down.

We got to the target, went in and the antiaircraft fire came up all around us, he recalls. I thought, 'Oh, my God! This is it!'

The sky was all lit up. I was in the back yelling, 'Brake right!' to the pilot. The other navigator would yell 'Brake left!' when he saw something coming at us.

After what likely was the longest minute of their lives, the crew emerged shaken but unharmed from the flak.

Their plane returned to its base about 11 p.m., making it the next to the last plane to land before the truce was launched that night.

Most of our missions weren't real bad, Adams says. That last one was the worst. It was a real shock to have it happen at the end of the war like that.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at