Months after the truce at Pyongyang, North Korea, had ended hostilities in the Korean War, Petty Officer 3rd Class Donald A. Wallace was seeing plenty of shellfire directed his way ... all from U.S. forces.
Wallace, a Gary native who had enlisted in the Navy in November 1951, was serving as a radio man aboard a JD-1 "rag dragger" from the VU-5 base in southern Japan. The "rags" (actually sleeves and banners) were deployed for target practice.
The multicolored nylon sleeves, about 3 feet in circumference and 12 to 15 feet long — think oversized windsock — were ship gunnery targets. Likewise, banners of a similar size — also dragged from the end of a cable some 5,000 to 7,000 feet away by the JD-1 — were for air-to-air practice with attacking planes.
The cable distance would seem relatively safe, but a plane accompanying Wallace's as they flew over two columns of 12 ships in the China Sea insisted once it had been hit on a mission.
"We flew under it and checked it out," Wallace recalled. "We couldn't see anything."
Wallace concedes he was "too young and dumb" at the time to worry about such hazards. A native of Hawaii who had seen Japanese aircraft bomb Pearl Harbor as a 9-year-old, Wallace was exhilarated by flying and speaks fondly of "Jig-Dog 19," his plane.
Two incidents hastened his maturity regarding flying, however.
Shortly before a four-fatality crash involving a two-plane mission that Jig-Dog 19 was supposed to participate in, a mechanic sweeping snow off the plane broke one of the antennae on the aircraft. Under old procedures the crew would have switched to another plane.
But Wallace and his mates were grounded.
Of the two planes sent out, one made it back to the base before the freak snowstorm for southern Japan forced officials to close its runway and the second, which had been waved off, crashed in the mountains near a distant airfield.
"It was a big shock to all of us," said Wallace, who lost a close friend and considered the crash in 1954 his worst moment in the service.
His most harrowing, however, involved an instance when the crew was returning from a flight to the Philippines and after it had stopped in Okinawa to refuel.
Somewhere at more than 11,000 feet over the Pacific between Okinawa and Guam, Wallace and a mechanic in the plane's tail heard a rush of static and then a pilot shouting through the plane's intercom, "Hit the circuit breakers. Hit the circuit breakers."
"Our airspeed indicator went down to zero," Wallace recalled, and the altimeter showed them losing altitude in a steep dive. Both men donned their parachutes while the altimeter marked a steady, all-too-speedy descent.
Fortunately, their two pilots pulled Jig Dog 19 out of the dive at a little more than 2,000 feet. The airspeed reading was false, Wallace explained, but the mind can't react that quickly, he noted, when the equipment shows one thing and the fact they were moving forward indicated they couldn't have been in a stall.
The airspeed instrument on the plane's exterior had iced over. A commercial plane in a similar situation more recently did crash, Wallace said.
"After the first plane went down (killing his friend), I've always thought I had a guardian angel watching over me," he said, citing the fortuitous grounding of his plane and the close brush with death over the Pacific.