Operation HAWK

International Operation Name:  Korean War   

International Operation Dates: 1950/07/25 - ongoing   

Mandating Organization: United Nations 

Region Name: Asia               

Location: Japan and Korea                                

Canadian Operation Name: Operation Hawk

Canadian Operation Dates: 1950/07/25 to 1954/05/25   

Mission Mandate:

To provide airlift support to United Nations Command, as requested through United Nations Security Council Resolutions 82 (25 June 1950), 83 (27 June 1950), and 84 (7 July 1950)

Mission Notes:

On 25 June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea in an effort to unify the country.  The United Nations Security Council passed a series of resolutions that called upon North Korea to withdraw its forces north of the 38th parallel.  More significantly, the Security Council requested UN members to provide such assistance to South Korea as would allow that country to repel the northern aggressors.  The Security Council created a unified command of United Nations forces and requested the United States to lead these forces.

In Canada, the Cabinet met on 28 June to discuss possible Canadian responses to the Security Council requests.  Lester Pearson, Secretary of State for External Affairs, indicated that the United States was reacting with more air and naval forces and that Great Britain was considering the contribution of a naval force.  In addition, Pearson noted that the UN Secretary-General had requested two military officers several weeks previously, the officers to be employed with the United Nations Commission on Korea (UNCOK).  Brooke Claxton, Minister of National Defence, indicated that Canada could contribute a number of destroyers and a small squadron of transport aircraft.  All decisions on contributions were held off until all possibilities had been explored, although the two officers for UNCOK were approved. 

After consultations with the United States, it was determined that for the Air Force contribution, a squadron of transport aircraft would be the most valuable because the United States’ Military Air Transport Service (MATS) had a greatly reduced capability at that time.  After the effort of the Berlin Airlift, a large proportion of MATS’ aircraft were undergoing extended maintenance and cleaning.  Accordingly, the Cabinet approved the deployment of 426 Squadron on 19 July 1950, under the name of Operation HAWK.

As it was, 426 Squadron had already begun making its own preparations for a possible deployment.  As the RCAF’s only long-range transport squadron, they expected to be called upon to provide support to any Canadian contribution to the United Nations’ efforts.  426 Squadron’s planning included the use of six Canadair North Star aircraft, flying from one of the Northwest states in the United States for a period of one year.  In this planning, the squadron was helped by the fact they had completed Operation Mobility in the past year, which saw them quickly deploy to Edmonton and operate from that location over several months.

On 20 July, 426 Squadron was ordered to deploy to McChord Air Force Base, Washington State, to be integrated into the United States MATS’ efforts.  Six aircraft would initially deploy, transporting personnel and materiel to Japan, with the caveat that the aircraft were not to fly to South Korea.  Five days later, six North Stars departed for McChord, arriving on the 26th.  On the 27th, the three aircraft departed for Japan. 

Operations from McChord proved difficult at first.  It was a fighter base suddenly taken over by MATS and its seven transport squadrons (including 426 Sqn) And consequently there was a lack of servicing facilities, accommodations, messing and other amenities for such a large number of personnel and aircraft.  These shortcomings were rapidly corrected as the US military machine swung into high gear and construction was begun at breakneck speed.  Highly original nose hangars were just one of the buildings erected to address the lack of maintenance space and shelter.

Relations with their USAF counterparts were very good.  426 Squadron navigators helped develop a standard navigation briefing for all flights to Japan, while the maintainers quickly borrowed newer LORAN sets (radio navigation aids) from their USAF counterparts, to replace the wartime sets in service in the North Stars.  This provided more accurate and reliable navigation assistance on the long distances flown between refueling stops.   A gentleman’s agreement was also arranged to provide flying hours for USAF navigators (of which there was a surplus) so that they could maintain their proficiency – essentially by having a USAF navigator fly with the squadron when the North Star carried only one RCAF navigator.

The chosen route was via Elmendorf Air Force Base, near Anchorage, Alaska; Shemya Island, in the Aleutian chain; and Misawa, Japan, before offloading at Haneda, near Tokyo.  The aircraft then returned via the same route. From the end of November 1950 to mid-June 1951, North Stars returning to McChord took a southern route back from Japan.  This involved flying to Wake Island and Honolulu for refueling, before making landfall and refueling near San Francisco and then on to McChord.  A total of 125 flights returned via this route, with injured American and Canadian servicemen being the main passengers.

To support these operations, a detachment of maintenance personnel was stationed in Alaska, initially at Elmendorf, before being moved to Adak and later Shemya, where they stayed until the end of the operation, and also at Haneda to prepare the North Stars for the long flight back to McChord.  While the southern return route was in operation, a detachment was also maintained at Honolulu.  That few flights suffered mechanical difficulties of any kind is testament to the skills of the ground crews.

The flights in 1950 carried mainly personnel and special freight, with mail for the Royal Canadian Navy destroyers when mail bags were ready.  A MATS C-54 could only carry 7500-8500 lbs, while a North Star could carry 10,000.  MATS put this capability to good use.  Initially, flights were scheduled at the rate of one per day, but only 426 Squadron was able to meet that standard helped by the fact that 12 North Stars were on strength by October 1950.  As MATS started returning its Berlin Airlift aircraft to service and as new aircraft were coming on line, the requirement to maintain one flight a day was reduced to 17 a month in February 1951, and then to 10 a month in June 1952.

The flights to Japan were not easy.  Icing was a problem for most of the year, while the Aleutians chain is also subject to dense fog on a more frequent basis than almost any other place on earth.  Landings at Shemya were almost always under Ground Controlled Approach, and in winter had the additional hazard of strong winds.  The route also took 426 Squadron close to the Soviet Union.  Soviet bases often spoofed or mimicked western air traffic controllers in an effort to divert flights, while the slightest error in navigation could put an aircraft over Soviet territorial waters, where an interception could legally have taken place and the aircraft forced to land in the Soviet Union.

Another problem was faulty charts. On one occasion, for example a North Star landing at a Japanese airfield to which the squadron had not flown before clipped the top of a mountain, while descending through clouds because the information provided by the navigator was erroneous.  Despite all the risks, only one North Star crashed throughout the entire operation.  On 27 December 1953, while returning from Japan, the nose strut of a North Star fractured on landing in Shemya during a heavy snow storm with strong cross-winds and a snow-covered runway.  Although the aircraft slid into a gully and was a write-off, nobody was seriously injured.

RCAF North Stars flew to South Korea six times, five in 1951 and once in 1952.  All trips departed from Japan, landed in South Korea, and departed within a few hours.  On three occasions, this involved taking senior military personnel to meetings and twice bringing Christmas mail and goods to Canadian troops serving in Korea (1951 and 1952).

The long distance training and the self-reliance of the maintenance detachments that these Trans-Pacific flights provided were a valuable opportunity for the RCAF to train personnel. In March 1951, the RCAF began rotating personnel through the air and ground crew positions, thereby providing as many airmen with experience in this manner of operation as possible.

Although the Korean War ended with an armistice on July 1953, Operation Hawk continued, in part because no Western government was sure that the armistice would hold.  The operation was finally concluded on 25 May 1954 after more than 34,000 flying hours.  426 Squadron airlifted more than 13,300 personnel across the Pacific and carried more than 7,000,000 lbs of freight.  At least 764 personnel rotated through 426 Squadron. 

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