- Sarah Peters Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Walter McCarthy flew six top-secret reconnaissance missions over Asia in a single-seat fighter plane with no weapons, but he wasn’t allowed to talk about it for more than 40 years — not even to his wife.
The Korea veteran had to keep his stories of derring-do in Russia, North Korea and China to himself until the missions were declassified in 1998. He had never seen most of the pictures he shot until an Air Force historian revealed them at a reunion a few years later.
McCarthy, a resident of the La Posada senior living community near The Gardens Mall, signed up for the Air Force ROTC as a freshman at Yale University in 1947 and was called to active duty when he graduated.
“I tell people I got my diploma in one hand and my orders in the other,” he jokes. “I was on active duty 11 days later.”
He planned to be a lawyer, but “Uncle Sam decided I was going to do my graduate work in Korea.”
But first, he was stationed on Long Island, where he married his high school sweetheart, Joy. He went on to flight school at three bases in Texas, where he won his wings in Waco.
He needed to learn how to take pictures from a jet before shipping off. In the interim, the armistice agreement formally ending the war — called a “police action” by President Harry Truman — was signed in 1953.
Nonetheless, McCarthy spent the winter of 1953 in a tent in Korea, until March 1, 1954, when the Air Force transferred him to Japan.
They wanted to equip his squadron with F-86s instead of the F-80s. The F-80, the original Air Force jet, “was a hard airplane for a photo pilot to do his job and stay alive,” McCarthy said.
“Of course, as pilots, we were tickled to get the 86s, because it was the best there was in the world at the time,” he said.
Cameras replaced the guns in the jets he flew. A lead F-86 jet pilot would snap the photos and a wing man in a separate plane kept an eye out for Soviet MiG jets.
Men would leave with the jets for three or four days and seem to forget where they had been when they returned, McCarthy said.
McCarthy flew six missions with the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, which still exists as the 15th Attack Squadron. The squadron operates out of Creech Air Force Base in Nevada and flies Predator drones in anti-terrorism missions.
When McCarthy and his fellow airmen received their assignments, they were forbidden from marking their routes on a map. Instead, they put the maps in clear plastic envelopes and traced their paths on the envelopes, he said. If the mission went awry, they could dispose of the envelope and, with it, the evidence they had flown over Russia.
They wore rubber, waterproof suits in case they ended up in the water and carried parachutes and Russian money in case they got in a bind, McCarthy said.
They’d fly out from Korea, Okinawa or a northern Japanese island, rather than home base, he said. After they got the photos, they’d go back to the originating base to refuel and then go to Tokyo, the home of the film-processing lab.
The film was 200 feet long and 9 inches wide, rolled up in a spool. McCarthy said after one mission, the phone rang in the officer’s quarters the next morning. They wanted him in the photo shop, stirring up dread.
“That is not the thing that the pilot taking the pictures wanted to hear,” he said, explaining that usually means the pilot missed the targets.
The photo interpreters would look at the film and print it only when they spotted something of interest. When McCarthy arrived, the interpreter had the film, marked with a red grease pen, and spread it out on a light table.
The photo interpreter told McCarthy he had something to show him: the pictures revealed two Soviet MiG jets flying a few thousand feet below McCarthy and his wing man. McCarthy never saw them in the air.
“It was sort of disconcerting,” he said.
The roles were reversed on another mission in February 1955 — McCarthy was the wing man. He and the lead pilot couldn’t fly closer than 800 feet apart without the risk of showing up as a blip on the radar.
They didn’t talk on the radio during the missions, either, he said.
They were flying through the center of North Korea, facing strong winds, and McCarthy was worried about fuel. Coming in, it was hazy, and he lost sight of the other jet.
He throttled back and flew down over the coast at 50,000 feet to provide a decoy for the other pilot to get his photos. McCarthy watched inland and saw flash, then spotted two MiGs flying at a lower altitude.
McCarthy put the power back on and skedaddled in the opposite direction at 500 mph, he said. Despite the drama, the lead pilot got his photos, and they had a routine landing.
McCarthy was stationed in Japan until November 1955, when he finished active duty. He stayed in the reserves until he retired in May 1970.
At home, he worked for Pratt & Whitney in Hartford for five years, until the company acquiesced to his pleas for a transfer to Florida. He retired in 1991.
“It was an interesting career. I never regretted my time in the Air Force,” he said.