Doug Danforth of Englewood, Fla. was a precocious kid. He graduated from high school at 15, joined the United States Air Force at 17 and went to war with the 27th Fighter Escort Wing, 8th Air Force in Korea on Dec. 7, 1950.
He was a crew chief on an F-84 “Thunderjet” at 19 and as a corporal, serving with the fighter wing at the air base at Tagu, South Korea. His job was to service the plane and keep it in the air.
The F-84 was a fighterbomber that used a J-7 jet engine that produced just 5,000 pounds of thrust and had no afterburner. It had taken to the air in 1947, and by the time the Korean War came along, it was a little long in the tooth.
Even so, the plane could deliver a substantial bomb load or rockets to a target or it could be used as a fighter with six .50-caliber machine guns in its nose and wings.
“It was a fantastic airplane. It was easy to maintain. You could change an engine on one of those planes in half an hour,” Danforth said.
“We were flying our airplanes so much we ran out of airplanes. We would start flying at 4:30 a.m. and would fly until midnight every day,” he said. “As fast as the airplane would come in and be rearmed and refueled, a different pilot would get in and fly out again. Eventually all our airplanes had to go back to Japan for maintenance.”
That meant that the ground crew had a lot of time on its hands. The brass had to manufacture jobs for the enlisted men.
“I volunteered to keep all the Buda generators that supplied the electricity in our area going,” Danforth recalled. “With the help of three other guys we took over the running of the generators.”
He organized the four-man generator squad. Each man worked an eight-hour shift and had 24 hours off. It worked great for a month or so until they got their planes back and got back into the war.
“Our outfit with its F-84s shot down more MIG (enemy) fighters than another unit that was flying F-86s,” he said. “The F-86s were faster, more maneuverable and had swept wings like the MIGs.”
When Danforth wasn’t keeping airplanes in the air, he was figuring out ways to scrounge up stuff for his buddies and make life better for the enlisted men in his unit.
The entire squadron was living in 12-man tents in the heart of winter.
“The temperature in Korea in December was 10 or 15 degrees below zero. Our tents had wooden boards around their sides 3 feet tall. They were heated by two potbellied stoves. I converted our stoves to burn jet fuel from a 55-gallon drum I had hidden out back. They burned good and kept us warm all winter long.”
“Come Christmastime, some of the guys in the unit sang Christmas carols for Col. Parker, our wing commander. I heard he had lots of whiskey stashed in his tent,” Danforth said. “I wore my old GI overcoat and went with the guys. While they were singing I was filling my coat with the colonel’s whiskey. The boys had a nice Christmas. The colonel never said anything about his missing bottles.
Then there was the time Danforth took the hams. Between Christmas and New Year’s, he discovered that the mess sergeant had at least 100 hams, all prepared for the holidays. The young corporal decided to cash in early.
“One night about 11 p.m., I walked by the generator that supplied power to our area and yelled out, ‘Generator Down!.’ I shut off the power and ran like hell for the mess hall that was completely dark. I grabbed the first ham I could put my hands on and took it back to our tent. On the way past the generator I yelled out, ‘Generator Up,’ flipped the switch, and the power came back on.
“The next morning all of us ate ham in our tent. We cooked it in some pans I had requestioned earlier,” Danforth said. “It was damn good.”
After a pilot named Capt. Tommy Helton was killed in his F-84 by a single shot from a rifle bullet that pierced the seat of his jet, Danforth went scrounging for some armor plating to put in the bottom of the seat of the plane he maintained.
“I talked to the civilian engineers at the main base and asked them what I could put in the seat to protect the pilot from enemy small-arms fire. The engineer cut me a piece of three-eighths-inch steel he said would stop a .50-caliber machine gun bullet,” Danforth said. “I never told anyone what I was doing. I don’t think anyone ever knew until years later.
“The engineer said he would give me as many steel plates as I wanted. I would paint these plates olive drab, like the rest of the seat, and stencil the number of the aircraft on the seat. Then I would go over to the hangar at night when the aircraft was in for maintenance and put the steel plate in. I probably put 75 plates in our planes, which was against regulations.”
In the 1960s, years after the Korean War was over, Danforth went to work as a civilian consultant and troubleshooter on helicopters. By 1968 he was in Vietnam fixing Hueys and Chinooks. He became the Huey project manager in Vietnam.
By 1969 Danforth had enough of the military and working for the military as a civilian.
He decided to become a car dealer in Texas. For a decade he did that, but went back to work for the government in 1979. He was working as a civilian for the Army Field Service as a troubleshooter helping to maintain anything the Army was flying, except the problem-prone Apache helicopters.
“If they had a problem they’d call me and I’d tell them how to fix it over the phone,” he said. “I loved what I did. I guess I bootlegged 10,000 or 12,000 hours of flying time.
“I dream of flying Hueys. I get up in the morning and my wife will say, ‘What were you flying last night?”
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, March 19, 2006 and is republished with permission.
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