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Profiles In Aviation: John Walmsley Was the Only Air Force Bomber Pilot Awarded the Medal of Honor In Korea

This Hero Flew His B-26 Night Invader Into History During Operation Strangle

Official US Air Force Photograph

John Springer Walmsley Junior was born on January 7th 1920 in Baltimore Maryland. He graduated from High School in Silver Springs in 1936 and attended the University of Maryland. In September of 1942 Walmsley enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF). He was assigned to pilot training first at Maxwell Field in Alabama, then at Orangeburg in South Carolina, followed by Bush Field in Georgia, and finally Turner Field in Georgia where he received his wings and commission during November of 1943.

Official US Air Force Photograph

Walmsley remained stationed at Turner Field as a flying instructor until the end of the war. During 1946 he transferred to Japan and spent the next three years as a bomber pilot in Douglas B-26 Marauder medium bombers. Now an officer in the United States Air Force (USAF), Walmsley returned stateside from the Far East to attend the Air Tactical School at Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, graduating in July of 1949. As a newly minted captain John became a specialist and worked with a series of air control and warning squadrons. He was also loaned to the Army at Fort Bragg in North Carolina for its training exercises, including Operation Swarmer, the 1950 mock invasion of the Eastern United States.

52nd FS P-82 Twin Mustang. Official US Air Force Photograph

Captain Walmsley was assigned to the 52nd Fighter Wing Fighting Hawks to fly all-weather North American F-82 Twin Mustangs from McGuire AFB in New Jersey in February of 1951. In June of the same year John shipped out to Korea for duty with the 8th Bomb Squadron Blackbirds of the 3rd Bomb Group Grim Reapers Fifth Air Force flying Douglas B-26 Night Intruders. On June 27th 1950 8th Bomb Squadron B-26s flew the first Air Force bombing mission of the war from Yokota Air Base and staging from Iwakuni Air Base in western Japan.

When Walmsley returned to the Far East he joined the 8th Bomb Squadron, then based at Kunsan Air Base (K-8) on the west coast of South Korea. Early on missions flown by the 8th were generally routine bombing runs dropping 260 pound fragmentation bombs and shooting at targets of opportunity with the B-26’s wing-mounted .50 caliber machine guns. During the summer of 1951, the United Nations (UN) and North Korea seemed to be nearing a truce. However, as the negotiations continued, North Korean and Chinese troops began moving supplies to the front lines while negotiations were taking place- especially at night.

The UN countered with Operation Strangle.  This was a new interdiction campaign designed to attack supply lines using arc lights attached to the undersides of the B-26s. These super-bright lamps (80 million candlepower worth) would enable the B-26s to spot movement of trucks, personnel, and trains at night but would also draw fire from every Communist weapon on the ground that could be brought to bear. The North Korean and Chinese trains were heavily fortified as were the valleys through which the train tracks were laid and the roads snaked.

Captain John Walmsley was one of the first pilots to volunteer for the dangerous mission. And so it began. The Night Invader pilot and crew flew 20 arc light missions and only three others. At this point in the war it would have taken about 60 missions to earn rotation out of the war zone and back the States. Emboldened by a successful 24th mission during which he attacked a convoy with 500 pound bombs and destroyed or damaged 16 trucks, John decided to fly his B-26 “Skillful 13” (tail number 44-34314) on a mission into North Korea alone on September 12th 1951.

Walmsley’s September 14th mission, his 25th, began as they usually did. Along with him in Skillful 13 that night were bombardier/navigator Second Lieutenant William D. Mulkins, photomapper Captain Philip W. Browning, and air gunner Master Sergeant George Morar. Nearly 100 miles behind enemy lines, they spotted an armed train moving supplies. Skillful 13 expended all available ordnance but only managed to damage the train. Walmsley called in a second Night Invader from Kunsan to finish the train off. When the second B-26 arrived Walmsley turned on his arc lights to illuminate the target for the newly arrived bomber.

Walmsley flew over the armed locomotive no less than three times, illuminating it but receiving heavy and accurate antiaircraft fire from both the train and enemy emplacements along the rail line. Walmsley not only illuminated the train but also allowed his aircraft to absorb most of the antiaircraft fire. This allowed the other B-26 to finish off the train. But Walmsley’s aircraft was severely damaged. He was able to make it only about two miles from the now-destroyed train before hitting the ground. The only survivor of the crew was the gunner Morar, who was severely burned but survived the crash itself and was taken prisoner. He survived the war. Four weeks later the arc lights were removed from all UN aircraft and not used again during the Korean War.

Walmsley’s crew each received a Distinguished Flying Cross for extraordinary heroism. Walmsley however, was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously on June 12th 1954. Walmsley’s widow, Flora Katherine, was presented with the Medal of Honor on that date at Bolling AFB in Washington, D.C. Walmsley was one of four USAF personnel awarded the Medal of Honor in the Korean War. All four were pilots who were killed in action. They were the only members of the USAF to receive the Army version of the medal because the USAF version was created later and not awarded until the Vietnam War. In recognition of the Wing’s distinguished service, the 3rd Bomb Wing was assigned to fly the very last bombing mission over North Korea an entire war after they flew the first bombing mission and only minutes before implementation of the ceasefire of July 27th 1953. John Walmsley would have approved.

Medal of Honor Citation

Capt. Walmsley, distinguished himself by conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. While flying a B-26 aircraft on a night combat mission with the objective of developing new tactics, Capt. Walmsley sighted an enemy supply train which had been assigned top priority as a target of opportunity. He immediately attacked, producing a strike which disabled the train, and, when his ammunition was expended, radioed for friendly aircraft in the area to complete destruction of the target. Employing the searchlight mounted on his aircraft, he guided another B-26 aircraft to the target area, meanwhile constantly exposing himself to enemy fire. Directing an incoming B-26 pilot, he twice boldly aligned himself with the target, his searchlight illuminating the area, in a determined effort to give the attacking aircraft full visibility. As the friendly aircraft prepared for the attack, Capt. Walmsley descended into the valley in a low level run over the target with searchlight blazing, selflessly exposing himself to vicious enemy antiaircraft fire. In his determination to inflict maximum damage on the enemy, he refused to employ evasive tactics and valiantly pressed forward straight through an intense barrage, thus insuring complete destruction of the enemy’s vitally needed war cargo. While he courageously pressed his attack Capt. Walmsley’s plane was hit and crashed into the surrounding mountains, exploding upon impact. His heroic initiative and daring aggressiveness in completing this important mission in the face of overwhelming opposition and at the risk of his life, reflects the highest credit upon himself and the U.S. Air Force.

Here’s some nice video footage of an operational B-26 Invader produced in 2016.

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Written by Bill Walton

Bill Walton

Bill Walton is a life-long aviation enthusiast and expert in aircraft recognition. As a teenager Bill helped his engineer father build an award-winning T-18 homebuilt airplane in their Wisconsin basement. Bill is a freelance writer, an avid sailor, engineer, announcer, husband, father, uncle, mentor, coach, and Navy veteran. Bill lives north of Houston TX with his wife and son under the approach path to KDWH runway 17R, which means they get to look up at a lot of airplanes. A very good thing.

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