Blinded by Gunfire, Navy Pilot Miraculously Lands

FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES

“On the ninth of my planned 15 bomb runs, at 1,200 feet, an enemy antiaircraft shell exploded in the cockpit. Instinctively, I pulled back on the stick to gain altitude. Then I passed out. When I came to a short time later, I couldn’t see a thing. There was stinging agony in my face and throbbing in my head. I felt for my upper lip. It was almost severed from the rest of my face. I called out over the radio through my lip mike (which miraculously still worked), ‘I’m blind! For God’s sake, help me! I’m blind!’ ”

The writer of those words, Kenneth A. Schechter, who died on Dec. 11 at 83, was no novelist. A graduate of Stanford and Harvard Business School, he spent most of his professional life as an insurance agent. But on March 22, 1952, as a Navy pilot over Wongsang-ni, North Korea, Mr. Schechter, then Ensign Schechter, was at the heart of an astonishing real-life thriller, one of the most electrifying air rescues in American military history.

Mr. Schechter, then 22, was already an experienced battle pilot; his fateful mission was his 27th over Korea. Stationed on the aircraft carrier Valley Forge in the Sea of Japan, he was a member of Fighter Squadron 194, known as the Yellow Devils, and his targets that day were standard ones: railroad tracks, marshaling yards and other enemy transportation structures. He was flying a single-seat attack plane known as the A-1 Skyraider.

In an essay that appeared nearly 50 years later in the book “Chicken Soup for the Veteran’s Soul” and subsequently in Naval Aviation News, Mr. Schechter recounted the events that allowed him to live.

When the antiaircraft shell ripped into the cockpit, blowing away the canopy, and he pulled the plane into a climb, he was headed for a cloud bank at 10,000 feet that would have obscured him from view of his squadron mates and was probably the gateway to oblivion.

Blood was flowing over his damaged eyes and nauseatingly into his throat, his head wounds were throbbing, and with the canopy gone, the noise from the engine and the 200-mile-per-hour airstream was earsplitting. But his scream through the microphone caught the attention of a fellow pilot, Lt. Howard Thayer, coincidentally his roommate on the Valley Forge, who spotted him above and gave the order: “Put your nose down! Put your nose down! Push over. I’m coming up.”

What followed was a high-tension, high-altitude partnership in which Lieutenant Thayer settled his plane alongside Mr. Schechter’s — he would later say that the ensign’s head was such a bloody mess, he was amazed the man was still alive — and directed him, an aerial guide dog, with vocal commands back over the battle front and into friendly territory.

Lieutenant Thayer’s first instinct was to have Ensign Schechter eject as soon as possible over the water, but the ensign refused; other pilots had not survived after bailing out into the frigid Sea of Japan, and without his sight — and with a parachute harness likely to be tangled — Ensign Schechter, who was fading in and out of consciousness, thought that this was a sure path to death. He mustered the gumption to refuse.

The men continued on. They headed for a Marine airfield known as K-18, about 30 miles away.

“I continued to follow Thayer’s directions, but he could see that my head kept flopping down from time to time and he doubted I could make it to K-18, so he decided to get me down right away,” Mr. Schechter wrote.

When Lieutenant Thayer spotted a deserted dirt airstrip not far beyond the battle line, he decided to set his friend down there. The ruggedness and brevity of the strip would make it dangerous to use landing gear, Mr. Schechter wrote, so he had to make a belly landing. (A brief account at the time by The Associated Press said Ensign Schechter did not use his landing gear because in his blindness he could not locate the controls.) Down went the two planes.

“From his plane, flying 25 feet away from mine and duplicating my maneuvers, Howard’s voice was cool and confident,” Mr. Schechter later wrote. Reported accounts of the rescue differ slightly, but according to Mr. Schechter’s, this is what he heard in his earpiece:

 “We’re heading straight. Flaps down. Hundred yards to the runway. You’re 50 feet off the ground. Pull back a little. Easy. Easy. That’s good. You’re level. You’re O.K. You’re O.K. Thirty feet off the ground. You’re O.K. You’re over the runway. Twenty feet. Kill it a little. You’re setting down. O.K. O.K. O.K. Cut!”

And then, shortly thereafter, ebulliently:

“You’re on the ground, Ken.”

It was, Mr. Schechter wrote, “a perfect landing.”

“No fire. No pain. No strain. The best landing I ever made.”

Kenneth Allen Schechter was born in Harlem on Jan. 31, 1930, and lived the first few years of his life on the Upper West Side, after which his father, George, who worked with his brothers in a textile business, moved the family to Los Angeles. George Schechter later divorced Kenneth’s mother, the former Marjorie Kovner, and married Thelma Mann. Young Ken went to Los Angeles public schools and to the University of California, Los Angeles, in the Naval Officer Training Program before entering the Navy.

Mr. Schechter died in Fairfield, Calif. His son, George, who goes by his middle name, Robert, said the cause was complications of prostate cancer. Mr. Schechter is also survived by his wife, the former Sue Finch, whom he married in 1955; another son, Jonathan; a daughter, Anne Buckley; and seven grandchildren.

After landing his plane, Ensign Schechter was taken to a Navy hospital ship. Shrapnel had severely wounded his face, scalp and right eye; his left eye was also damaged. He regained his sight in the left eye but not in the right.

The events of March 22, 1952, were briefly reported before the end of the month by The Associated Press and recounted more substantially several months later in an article by Cmdr. Harry A. Burns, a Naval officer, in The Saturday Evening Post. That article and another magazine account of Navy fliers in Korea written by James Michener were used as the basis of a 1954 Hollywood film, “Men of the Fighting Lady,” which starred Van Johnson as Lieutenant Thayer and Dewey Martin as Ensign Schechter.

Howard Thayer, who made the Navy his career, was killed in 1961 when, on a night mission, he flew into the water returning to a carrier in the Mediterranean Sea.

In 1995, Mr. Schechter was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. During his acceptance speech, he addressed Mr. Thayer’s three children, by then adults.

“I hope you will see this ceremony as your ceremony,” Mr. Schechter said, “because that’s certainly the way I feel about it.”

Fourteen years later, in 2009, Mr. Thayer received the award himself, posthumously.

Photo Credit: The New York Times

This article was written by Bruce Weber and originally appeared in the New York Times.


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