Impressive story of cooperation between U.S. and Aussie military...


April 23, 2003, 05:03 PM
The Daily Telegraph (Sydney, Australia)

April 24, 2003 Thursday


LENGTH: 1118 words

HEADLINE: Tied by blood bonds we shall not forget - The PIERS Profile: On courage



As proud servicemen and women prepare to join tomorrow's Anzac march, it is worth remembering not only the US contribution to Australia's security in the Pacific but also the strong ties that still bind the nations, says PIERS AKERMAN

SHOT down behind North Korean lines, Australians Neil MacMillan and Hank Hancox were facing years in a grim Communist prisoner-of-war compound, if not worse, when two Americans on secondment to the RAN put their lives on the line in a rescue mission that still brings chills to those who recall the incident.

The drama began when a Firefly from HMAS Sydney being flown by Sub-Lt MacMillan, with Hancox as observer, was brought down by anti-aircraft fire on October 26, 1951, near their target -- a railway tunnel more than 80km behind enemy lines and well north of the 38th parallel.

Late in the afternoon, with dusk falling rapidly, Californians Arlen Keith "Dick" Babbitt and George C. Gooding took off from the Sydney in their US Navy Sikorsky helicopter, an aircraft unequipped for night-flying, unarmed except for an Owen gun, to be manned by Gooding. It was 4.22pm.

According to former RAN officers Geoff and Peter Vickridge, who prepared a brief account of the episode for the Australian War Memorial's magazine Wartime, it was the beginning of an outstanding chapter in US/Australian military history.

The brothers, now retired, told me that incredible bravery and skill was exhibited by pilot Babbitt and his crewman in the course of the marathon rescue mission.

In a truly desperate attempt to reach the downed aircraft before dark, Babbitt managed to fly the helicopter at 120 knots, 20 knots more than its theoretical top speed.

Another American helicopter nearer the Australian crash site was also scrambled to attempt the rescue under the protection of two fighter aircraft but was recalled as darkness approached.

Babbitt ignored the recall order and actually passed the second helicopter as he pushed on into the gathering night.

Air cover from Sea Furies, Fireflies and Meteors was provided to the downed Australians who were under heavy rifle and machinegun fire.

THE commander of the air cover group, Lt-Commander Michael Fell, swooped low enough to drop a message telling the stranded pair that help was on the way.

His plane was severely damaged by heavy ground-fire and he just managed to nurse it to a friendly airfield.

Little more than an hour after they had taken off from the Sydney, the Americans saw the flashes of gunfire where MacMillan and Hancox were still fighting off the Communist troops.

"Inside a protecting circle of shells from the guns of the Sea Furies the helicopter dropped down beside the two Australian airmen, says an official report of the rescue quoted in Norman Bartlett's history With the Australians in Korea.

"Aircrewman Gooding jumped out and shot two of the enemy who had crept up to within 15 yards. He and the two crashed airmen then climbed into the helicopter which withdrew out of range." It was 5.35pm.

"Triumphantly escorted by Sea Furies, whose pilots had risked their lives by staying for 15 minutes beyond the estimated fuel limit of their aircraft, the helicopter returned to the carrier. The last half hour was made in darkness but all three aircraft landed safely."

But they did not land aboard Sydney, which Babbitt was unable to find without night-flying instruments.

He flew south of the battleline to Kimpo where troops lit the landing strip with the headlights of lines of trucks and landed safely, along with the Sea Fury escorts whose fuel gauges registered empty. It was about 6.30pm.

Aboard Sydney, the crew cheered when news of the rescue was broadcast over the public address system.

Captain D. H. Harries recorded the event in the log: "The ship's Guardian Angel had a very hardworking and successful day."

Chief aviation machinist's mate Babbitt, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal and the US Navy Cross for the courage, skill and determination he showed on the mission, said he could not have made the rescue without the co-operation of the RAAF, the USAAF and in particular,

the "loyal devotion of the two Sea Fury pilots" Lieutenants Justin Cavanagh and John Salthouse.

The Korean War's aims were never realised, North Korea remains a threat to world peace today, its starving population remains among the most repressed on earth.

Some naval historians believe the story of the rescue was drawn upon by author James Michener when he wrote The Bridges at Toko-Ri, which was made into the 1954 classic starring William Holden, Grace Kelly, Frederick March and Mickey Rooney.

Still worth watching, it is a Hollywood attempt to show something of the psychological side of war.

However what the extraordinary rescue really shows is something of the extraordinary depth of the joined-at-the-hip loyalty that existed then and exists now between US and Australian forces.

Prime Minister John Howard could do worse than remind President George W. Bush of the US pilot's extreme heroism when they meet in Texas next month.

It helps that neither the US nor Australia was then or is now fighting to occupy other nations, but to liberate oppressed people and give them the opportunity to lead lives free of tyranny.

It is the intrepid courage of men such as those in this story that brought liberty and freedom to millions across Europe and Asia during WWII and continued to bring hope to hundreds of millions more throughout the Cold War.

Our honourable commitment to the coalition of the willing is in the same spirit and must be saluted and celebrated tomorrow and when our troops begin to return from their mission in Iraq and the Gulf during the coming months.

Bravery beyond the call of duty

4.22pm: Sikorsky helicopter flown by Americans Dick Babbitt and George Gooding leave HMAS Sydney to rescue downed Australian Firefly crew members, Neil MacMillan and Hank Hancox

5.00pm: Flying 20 knots faster than the theoretical maximum speed to reach the two Australians before dark, Babbitt and Gooding refuse order to turn back

5.15pm: Meteor aircraft providing air support for the trapped Australians depart, leaving two Sea Furies, running on empty, as the sole escort in the mercy dash

5.25pm: Babbitt and Gooding arrive at crash site with Sea Furies still providing covering fire and Gooding firing on North Korean troops with an Owen gun

5.35pm: Under a hail of bullets, the two Australian airmen climb aboard the Sikorsky

6.30pm: Not equipped for night flying and unable to return to the Sydney, Babbitt and Gooding land with the two Sea Fury escorts at Kimpo airfield

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