The Korean Kid
A young Australian pilot’s baptism of fire
in the jet fighter age
Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2020
Paperback 340pp RRP $29.99
Reviewer: Neville Taylor, February 2021
Born in 1930, James Kitchenside grew up in a Depression-ridden Marrickville, surviving in hand-me-downs in an overcrowded house a stone’s throw from Mascot Aerodrome. As he had little to look forward to, he often visited the Mascot fence, dreaming of flying in a blue uniform. He achieved good academic results in his schooling, but preferred sport fields where he was already displaying leadership. Ill-health prevented him gaining his Matriculation Certificate. Answering an advertisement recruiting young fliers, James, he was selected as one of 75 recruits from 1200 applicants for RAAF Training Course in 1949 at Point Cook, Victoria.
June 1950 saw the outbreak of the Korean War. No 77 Squadron RAAF was stationed in Japan, and with long-range capability of their P-51 Mustangs. were ideal for striking North Korea’s supply lines. By November, the first jet air battle was fought above North Korea between US Meteors and China’s Russian MiG-15s. It was not until July 1951 that the RAAF flew its first Gloster Meteor F.8s out of its Kimpo base, north-west of Seoul. August 1951 saw James (‘the boy’ as referred to by Nicholls throughout the text) graduate and commence advanced flight training on Mustangs and Vampire jets. His first Vampire flight saw his aircraft’s engine ‘flame out’ and he glided from an altitude of 30 000 feet back to Williamtown base. Six weeks before his posting to Japan for a mere eight hours training on Meteor jets, James married Beryl Sjoberg in Sydney.
An hour after arrival at Kimpo on 19 March 1952, James was handed orders for his first mission. Six weeks later he had 46 missions under his belt, with 77 Squadron flying twice as many missions as their US counterparts, and James an exceptional four missions on Easter Sunday! After 50 missions 77 Squadron’s CO summoned James, then escorted his youngest pilot to present him with his personal Meteor. Overnight it had been emblazoned with the figure of a skinny gunslinger under the title ‘The Korean Kid’ by the RAAF and US groundcrew artists.
In May the death of one 77 Squadron pilot spurred his World War I-veteran father to make public calls for Australians to be fully aware of the conditions and workloads of their pilots in Korea. The following month operational tours were cut from nine to six months as 77 Squadron suffered its 30th loss. On a convoy-strafing mission James lost one engine due to ground fire and limped back to base. A South African pilot assigned to 77 Squadron, collared James’ Meteor, only for James to witness it being shot down. The pilot parachuted out and became a prisoner of war. Just before his 148th (and last) mission on 10th September, James again survived after enemy fire caused loss of rudder and elevation controls in the tail section. He returned to Australia that with the US Air Medal, a Mentioned in Dispatches, Beryl and two-week old son named Gary.
At 22 years of age James was the youngest pilot selected for the 1953 Fighter Instructors Course at RAAF Williamtown – earmarked for No. 9 Flying Instructors Course at East Sale and commissioned as Pilot Officer. In 1954, promoted to Flying Officer, he returned to Williamtown’s Operational Training Unit until 1955. Again, his life was threatened in 1955 when leaking fuel from his Vampire meant he had to shut down the engine and make a forced landing. He was promoted to Flight Lieutenant and was appointed temporary CO of No.21 (City of Melbourne) Squadron in 1957.
His completed the Antarctic Pilots Navigation Course in 1958, reconnoitred the Antarctic in ’59 when the 1960 RAAF Antarctic Flight was raised. Promoted Acting Squadron Leader, his first major challenge in Antarctica in January 1960 was to land from the Thala Dan a Douglas C-47 at Mawson Base, and then reassemble it. It would be June before the aircraft had its first test flight. In the previous month, James, was flying a de Havilland Beaver that plunged from 6500 feet to 300 feet due to katabatic winds. In December a 40-hour 300 kph blizzard destroyed the C-47 and Beaver aircraft on the Rumdoodle plateau, 16km from Mawson.
The following years saw James complete an Administrative Course, head air combat training on Vampires, convert to Sabres, promotion to Squadron Leader joining No. 76 Fighter Squadron, to senior Flight Commander with No. 77 Squadron Butterworth at the end of 1963. Three months in 1965 were spent in Sabres off the coast of Borneo. He attended the RAAF Staff College and 1968 saw James being promoted to Wing Commander and then command No. 38 Squadron at RAAF Richmond. A unit with a tarnished reputation was, through careful and considerate steps, nurtured by Kitchenside, back to being again respected by the RAAF. Its Caribou transport aircraft flew in Vietnam and Papua New Guinea. A round-the-world flight to Canada in November 1969 to pick up a new Caribou was to be the end of his flying days.
A series of staff postings followed including in 1971 Head of Joint Warfare Staff at Defence Central, Canberra, but not meeting political and social obligations sunk James’ chances of further promotion and resulted in him taking retirement from the RAAF at 45 years of age. He moved into the Public Service where his skills and experience were rewarded with satisfying years. 1980 saw him appointed Assistant Director of Security and Intelligence which entailed five years of travel before he retired in 1985. In 2010 he was invited by South Korean President Lee to join the celebrations marking 60 years since the outbreak of the Korean War and receive the Ambassador of Freedom Medal.
A well-written work containing many highlights and quality photographs illustrating them. There are 21 pages of Endnotes that encompass the research put in by the author.
Sadly, this is one of too few books written about Australia’s ‘Forgotten War’.
The RUSI- Vic Library thanks the publisher for providing this review copy.