When Francis Durso of North Port. Fla. arrived in Korea in 1955 as a member of the 13th Helicopter Company based in Uijongbu, South Korea, approximately 80 miles north of Seoul and 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, he was a 19-year-old specialist-3rd class crew chief on a 19-H “Chickasaw” Sikorsky-built helicopter.
The closest he came to not making it home was during the first few days of his 18-month tour in Southeast Asia.
“On our test flight the pilot and I took the helicopter up to 12,000 feet over the Han River in South Korea and the engine stopped,” Durso explained more than 60 years later. “I held the co-pilot’s stick and was ready to take over if he passed out. He didn’t but his face turned bright red.
“He kept pushing the starter button. About 150-feet above the ground the engine finally kicked in and started. We landed safely,” he said.
“Our main job was to transport a United Nations Inspection team around Korea. We flew high ranking officers and dignitaries around the country. Occasionally we also did medical evacuations.”
The H-19 was not a jet-powered chopper like the Huey used in Vietnam. It was conventionally powered with two rotor blades. It could transport nine litters and a nurse or 10 soldiers in battle dress.
The high point of Durso’s tour in Korea came during Christmas of 1955 when his helicopter crew flew Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York around the country to say Mass for the troops.
“He was very quiet when we were taking him around. He was probably in his 70s. When he sat in our helicopter he looked exhausted.”
At that point in his career the cardinal was possibly the leading figure in the Catholic Church in the U.S. He had made it his responsibility to support our troops in the field as far back as the start of World War II. He became involved with the servicemen at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt in the late 1930s.
Another thing Durso remembers about the country, it was very cold or very hot.
“The winters in Korea were super cold and I’m from New England and I know something about cold weather,” he said. “In the summer it was humid and it rained a lot during the monsoon season. The rain would drive you nuts pounding on the roof of our metal Quonset hut when you were trying to sleep.”
Durso wrapped up his time in the Army when he returned from Korea at Fort Eustice, Va. headquarters of Army transportation right outside of Norfolk near Williamsburg. When he was discharged he had his ticket for success. He was a certified aircraft engine repairman.
“Eventually I went to work for General Electric Co. I worked for them for almost 40 years until I retired. Then I went to work for G.E. as an aircraft consultant and finally retired for good in 2005. I was working on parts for the engine in the F-16 jet fighter.”
“If they asked me to go back to Korea I’d do it all over again,” the 81 year old vet observed.
Durso has a son and two daughters: Francis Jr., Gina and Lisa.
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Monday, July 18, 2016 and is republished with permission.
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