Don Schilke helped rescue wounded 1st Division Marines in his ‘Avenger’ fighter plane

Don Schilke joined the Navy Reserves while still in high school in Oak Park, Ill. in 1947. After graduation he found himself in Composite Squadron 21 at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego training for a job as an anti-submarine warfare crewman aboard a Grumman “Avenger” torpedo bomber.
His first three years flying as the bombardier, searchlight operator and cameraman aboard the modified “Avenger” looking for Soviet submarines off the coast of California in the late ’40s was rather bland.

“We’d fly anti-submarine warfare flights out of my base at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego,” the 82-year-old Englewood, Fla. resident said. “Occasionally we’d find a Russian sub. I could tell one a half-mile away because they were so noisy.”

Since the United States wasn’t at war with the Soviet Union his “Avenger” crew would practice war games with the Russian sub. Their airborne military adventures never turned hot for Schilke and his crew.

“One day they brought us a very special new torpedo to test. A truck came into our squadron area at North Island with this torpedo. With it came a bunch of armed guards,” he recalled. “There were guards all over the place. They put a big screen around our airplane while they attached to torpedo.

“This was something special, a magnetic homing torpedo. What was supposed to happen was that we were going to drop this torpedo in the Pacific near one of our submarines. It was supposed to hit the water, go around in a circle then impact the sub.

“We took off with the torpedo and headed for the drop area. We could see the submarine in the water below. The bomb bay doors were opened.

“‘Schilke, drop the torpedo,’ my pilot said.

“Another plane flying with us was photographing what we were doing.

Schilke’s “Avenger” prowls the California coast looking for enemy subs in the late 1940s. The submarine far below is American. Photo provided

“I did what I was told and dropped the torpedo. It hit the water and they never saw it again. It was supposed to come to the surface and home in on its target. But it disappeared.”

Things got more exciting for Schilke in 1950 when Anti-submarine Squadron 21 relocated to Guam for more submarine training. In June 1950 the Korean War broke out and five planes in his squadron were transferred to the 1st Marine Air Wing in Korea.

Their job was to fly out some of the most seriously wounded 1st Division Marines who made the perilous march from the sea to the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea fighting their way to the Chinese border and back.

“Our group of five ‘Avengers’ were modified so they could transport five or six seriously wounded Marines from the front lines to a staging area 50 or 60 miles south. We would rendezvous with a helicopter that air lifted the wounded Marines to the USS Consolation, a hospital ship, off the North Korean coast,” Schilke said.

“We’d pick up the wounded at a roughed out air strip at Kotori or Yonpo, North Korea and fly them south to Hamhung, along the North Korean Coast, where they were put on a helicopter for the final leg of their journey to the hospital ship off the coast.

“We flew back and fourth from Kotori or Yonpo to Hamhung five or six times a day. It was a quick flight from the battlefield to the staging area. This went on for a month or so,” he said.

“We were lucky the North Koreans and the Chinese didn’t have anti-aircraft artillery,” Schilke said. “They did have .50 caliber machine-guns and we were hit occasionally by machine-gun fire. Nothing serious.”

In January 1951 his war was over. Members of Schilke’s squadron sailed back to the U.S. aboard the USS Breckenridge, a troop transport.

“The ship was jammed with people. One night I waited until everyone was in bed aboard ship to go to the head. I heard some noise up forward in the head and went to see what was going on.

“A hatch was dogged down and I opened it. Son-of-a-gun there was a complete gambling casino in action right there in the bow of the ship run by the ship’s company,” Schilke recalled 60 years later. “They a roulette table and poker tables going full bore. Watching through the open hatch I saw poker hands for $500. That was a lot of money in those days.

“The Navy paid the Marines off before they boarded the ship in Japan. They had lots of money in their pockets. Many of the ‘Leathernecks’ spent their pay gambling on the two weeks it took us to reach San Francisco.

“Another thing that got me aboard ship: We were approaching San Francisco Harbor when over the ship’s PA system comes word ‘No weapons will be allowed to be brought ashore. There will be a sea bag inspection before you get off the ship.’

This was Schilke when he served in the Navy shortly after graduating from high school in 1947. Photo provided

This was Schilke when he served in the Navy shortly after graduating from high school in 1947. Photo provided

“A lot of us had brought our weapons home from war–.45 caliber pistols, M-1 rifles and others we’d ‘liberated.’ All of us were bummed out that they were going to inspect all our sea bags before we left the ship and take our guns away.

“They had no sooner made that announcement than guys from the ship’s company descended on us and made offers to buy our weapons. I had a .38 caliber revolver I carried in the plane when I flew. A guy from the ship offered to give me $10 for my .38. I wasn’t going to sell him my weapon for $10. I got so mad I threw it out an open porthole rather than sell it to him.

“As we left the Breckenridge with our sea bags over our shoulders there was no inspection. That has just been a ruse by the ship’s company to get us to sell them our weapons cheaply,” Schilke said.

He took the G.I. Bill and graduated from the University of Illinois four years later with a degree in advertising and public relations. For the next 13 years Schilke worked as an advertising salesman for the Chicago Daily News.

He became a wheeler and dealer in Republican politics in suburban Chicago. In 1960, just in time for the Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign, Schilke became the Republican committeeman for the township.

After the election, he was appointed by the governor as Director of the Illinois Department of Business and Commerce. Four years later, when the governor lost the election, Schilke took a position as a trade specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce.

After several years working in this capacity he joined the U.S. Foreign Service and for the next 20 plus years toured the world as a federal government representative in Ghana, Nigeria, Australia and numerous other places.

Schilke married Linda. After he retired from the Foreign Service they moved to Englewood in 1995. The couple has six children: Carol, Peter, Paul, Jessica, Leslie and Melinda.

Schilke’s File

 This is Schilke today at his Englewood home. He is 82. Sun photo by Don MooreName: Donald Lee Schilke
D.O.B: 24 June 1930
Hometown: Oak Park, Illinois
Currently: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: 11 May 1948
Discharged: 10 May 1952
Rank: Electrician’s Mate Airplane
Unit: Air Anti-Submarine Squadron
Commendations: Korean Service Medal with One Star, Good Conduct Medal

This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, Jan. 21, 2013 and is republished with permission.

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