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A Cold War USAF Fighter Pilot,His Career & His Watches

Albert Dopeness.png

Albert Schultz, my grandfather, retired in the 1970s from the United States Air Force as a full bird Colonel in command of a USAF base in Ohio.  Throughout his career, he cut a dashing figure in photographs and throughout his life he was a man you respected. 


He coupled his tough love with a great sense of humor and a love of practical jokes.  He loved serving his country in the USAF and accumulated a few watches throughout this career and travels.  Albert was another in a long line of soldiers – his great-grandfather had been a soldier in the Prussian army, emigrating to Virginia in 1852, and he had numerous distant relatives that had served in the American Revolution. 


World War II

Albert attended Ohio State, but his education was interrupted by WWII – in mid-1942, not long after Pearl Harbor, he enlisted and completed basic training in Los Angeles, California.  Newly married to my grandmother following basic, he embarked on a series of air force flight schools throughout California and Arizona on single, multi-engine, transport, and bomber aircraft – fellow cadets would fail out and a few died in training accidents.  To be close to my grandfather, my grandmother would rent a tiny room with a view of the Hollywood sign – the same sign my wife would live near decades later, before we wed.

In early 1944, having excelled on the B-25 Mitchell bomber and following promotion to a Second Lieutenant, he was assigned to train other pilots at Deming Field, NM, and Douglas Field, AZ.  During the 1940s, flight instructors were not usually combat veterans, but civilians or recent graduates of USAF training.  He instructed atypical students on the B-25 – Chinese Nationalist Government pilots.  After the U.S. entered WWII, it developed a training program for the Chinese Air Force.  Early in the conflict, the Nationalist Government called on college students to enlist in pilot training to fight the Japanese invasion – those who passed entry tests were admitted to China-based flight school for preparatory training, with subsequent advanced training in U.S.-based schools. 


It was apparent early in the program language was the largest barrier, with multiple regional Mandarin dialects being spoken by Chinese cadets, and the USAF cast a wide net to recruit Chinese Americans to serve as interpreters.  Despite the interpreters, mid-air training was stressful due to language difficulties.  


Early program graduates undertook combat missions with only 20 hours of independent flight – it was atypical for a pilot trained in the early iterations of the program to survive longer than two months.  The program had matured by the time Albert joined, and by the conclusion of WWII, over 3,500 Chinese (to include 866 pilots) had received flight and technical training.  


In August 1945, after 18 months as a B-25 instructor, Albert was promoted to First Lieutenant.  He was no doubt aware of an impending invasion of Japan to end the war, which would include extensive USAF involvement.  However, the mid-1946 U.S. use of nuclear weaponry ended the war before any invasion. 


By the late 1940’s, Cold War tensions were boiling, and in late 1948 Albert, now a Captain, was assigned to Air Tactical School at Panama City-based Tyndall AFB Air University.  In April 1950, with the outbreak of the Korean War two months away, the USAF assigned him to more flight training at Lowry (Denver, Colorado) and Lockbourne Air Force Bases, where he flew the premier fighter at the time, the P-51 Mustang, to accumulate hours. 


The Korean War and the Type A-17 Mechanical Watch

The Korean War was a painful turning point for the USAF – for example, within the Air National Guard Guardsmen, nearly 45,000 airmen, 80% of the ANG, were mobilized; the call up would expose glaring ANG weaknesses in the form of obsolete aircraft and substandard training.  The ANG was unfit for combat, with units assigned seemingly at random to active duty and many more used as fillers elsewhere in the USAF.  


In September 1951, Albert was assigned to the 5th Air Force’s advance base at Kimpo Air Base (김포국제공항 or K-14), located northwest of the city of Seoul.  At Kimpo, he was the base Supply Stock Control Officer for the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group, which flew the successor to the P-51, the F-86 Sabre jet fighters.  Its primary mission was flying protective cover for United Nations fighter-bombers targeting vital Communist rail and supply lines in North Korea.


Introduced in late 1950, pilots at Kimpo scored a quick succession of wins in dog fights against the Soviet-made MiG-15 fighter jets.  By the end of the war, the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Group airmen would destroy 502 enemy aircraft, over half the total during the war – 24 of its pilots achieved ace status.  As supply officer, Albert and his staff assisted the 4th in this record, providing a reliable flow of spare parts, weapons, ammunition, petroleum, oil, and lubricants.   


During his service in Korea, Albert wore a USAF-issued Type A-17 mechanical watch, a well-made manual-winding watch that featured a parkerized steel case, screw-down case back, drilled lugs, and an oversize crown to aid in the setting of time.  These simplistic but handsome watches usually featured black 24-hour dials. 

To understand military-issued watches, one need first understand government purchasing.   When the U.S. Government contracts for goods, it does not “shop.”  Instead of surveying the market and choosing from available products, it publishes detailed criteria for its needs, and private companies – like American watchmakers Hamilton, Waltham, Elgin, and others – submit proposals for the DoD contract.

In the early 1950s, the USMIL released their MIL-W-6433 spec – the Type A-17 – which would be produced in three lots for the USMIL in 1950, 1952, and 1956.  It was intended as a navigation timepiece for pilots and had been in development as an upgraded version of WWII’s Type A-11.  First produced by Waltham, the A-17 would eventually be made by the same A-11 watchmakers.  Upgrades included radium lume on the hour numerals, five-minute indices, and handset, including the tip second hand tip.

The similarity between the widely-issued Type A-17 and another USMIL watch, the MIL-W-3818A, meant parts were interchangeable – the chief directive military supply chain was to interchange parts to get as many returned to the field possible, something Albert in his primary supply role in Korea would have been well acquainted with.  A practice pejoratively referred to as “Frankenwatching” today, military expedience dictates otherwise during times of war.  Of the A-17’s that survived, many received Frankenwatch treatment during service in Korea.

The A-17 is a small watch by today’s standards, at scarcely over 30mm – but anyone that has served in the military can attest large watches pose an inconvenience to mobility.  Engraved on the caseback is a wealth of information, to include Serial Number, Federal Stock Number, and USMIL contract number, and the A-17 remains in demand by collectors to this day.


At Kimpo, Albert watched artillery flash across the Han River – the war (and North Korea) a mere dozen miles distant.  The possibility of North Koreans again rolling over Seoul remained – Kimpo had changed hands three times.  When war began in mid-1950, Kimpo fell to invading North Korean forces the first week, only to be wrested back following the late 1950 Inchon invasion; it would again fall to Communist forces in January 1951.  Then, Kimpo Air Police were overwhelmed, the base population easily defeated before reinforcements arrived; no formal USAF weapons training program existed.  Most U.S. personnel at Kimpo were unable to defend the base – many weapons were inoperable due to lack of maintenance.  Remaining airmen were hung from aircraft hangers.

Despite static conflict lines near the 28th Parallel, things remained tenuous at Kimpo, as North Korean infiltrators were a reoccurring issue.  Kimpo radio operator in 1952, Herbert Rideout, described several infiltrator incidents:


One evening, one of the men in our tent went to the latrine.  When he didn’t return, we went looking for him and found him between tents stabbed to death.  Later, infiltrators slit the side of tents open, entered, and silently killed several men.  Officers and enlisted men were quartered in tents, and one morning as I walked past the base commander’s quarters, South Korean military police were dragging a man to a truck, and they shot him in the head before tossing him in the back.  He had gained entrance to the commanders’ quarters and attacked him with a knife – the commander had successfully fought him off.


North Korean biplanes attacking Kimpo was another experience Albert and his fellow airmen recalled with amusement – using the Polikarpov U-2/Po-2, an obsolete 1920’s Soviet biplane constructed of wood and canvas, North Korean pilots would fly night sorties to harass Kimpo personnel.  Small fragmentation bombs or grenades were dropped in the hope of hitting a tent, aircraft, or something of value; however, the only casualty was usually loss of airmen sleep due to base sirens and anti-aircraft fire.  


In early 1952, the U.S. assessed Chinese and North Korean forces were massing in substantial numbers a few miles north with the intention to retake Kimpo; personnel were expected to hold out no matter the odds until U.S. Marines arrived within five days.  According to Rideout, what saved Kimpo were P-51 fighters and the liberal use of napalm on advancing enemy forces – upon returning to refuel and rearm, fighter aircraft didn’t retract their wheels, given the close proximity of Communist forces.

Albert’s role wasn’t limited to running the base supplies – he resisted the surging Communist offensive that February by piloting Douglas C-47 Skytrain military transport aircraft on a variety of missions, in particular "Firefly" sorties, which involved C-47's adapted to drop large flares in support of nighttime aerial and ground operations.  The low-flying C-47’s dropped flares to mark enemy positions, with B-25 Mitchell strafe and bomber sorties subsequent.


During 1952, Albert recalled being continuously in the air.  No sooner had he reloaded, he would again take off on another sortie.  When asked about Firefly sorties, he would grin in his typical jovial fashion and say, “[The flack and gunfire] was pretty loud!”  In addition to Firefly missions, night attacks on convoys were another important priority – carrying searchlights, C-47’s operated in “hunter-killer” teams.  The first C-47 would find a target enemy convoy and fly over it; when it had passed, convoy drivers usually turned headlights back on in time for the second C-47 to strike. 


Albert recounted watching aircraft land frequently on fire, or with wheels up – after combat sorties, shot-up aircraft would often lose hydraulics leading to landing flap malfunctions and no ability to brake.  Planes would skid off the runway, and usually burst into flames.

Upon Albert’s return from Korea, he continued his service in the Ohio Air National Guard near Lockbourne (later Rickenbacker) AFB in Ohio, where he would be stationed for the rest of his career.  His new assignment was akin to one he had left in Korea – he was the base supply officer and flew C-47’s – instead of Firefly missions, he was the pilot for multiple Ohio governors. 


In 1957 and 1960, Albert was promoted to Major and Lieutenant Colonel, respectfully.  Highlights of his post-Korea career included regular trips to the Pentagon, travel to South Korea and Japan, and a posting to France during the 1961 Berlin Wall crisis – he was also a USAF dispute mediator, necessitating travel to airbases throughout the world.  In 1968, the Navy intelligence ship USS Pueblo was attacked and captured by North Korea, and the resulting crisis dictated return to Korea as the Cold War grew hot again.  However, the USAF (and Albert) would compete for supplies against another simmering conflict in Asia, Viet Nam. 

Toward the end of his career, Albert was offered a position in Washington D. C., along with promotion to Brigadier General – he declined.  By the mid-1970s, family meant more than career advancement, and he preferred to finish his USAF service in Ohio.  He retired in 1977, in command of Rickenbacker AFB, at the rank of a full bird Colonel.

Albert would spend his retirement years between Ohio and Florida, amassing a few watches to include a gold 1950s Zodiac Autographic mechanical and…a practical 1985 Seiko 8C22-6000 quartz, among others.  He passed peacefully in 2015 at the youthful age of 93, and my grandmother passed his watches – albeit not the Type A-17, which has been lost – and the Zodiac and Seiko see regular wear in the watch rotation.

*I owe a huge debt of gratitude and special thanks to Fred Schultz, the family historian

During 1952, Albert recalled being continuously in the air.  No sooner had he reloaded, he would again take off on another sortie.  When asked about Firefly sorties, he would grin in his typical jovial fashion and say, “[The flack and gunfire] was pretty loud!”  In addition to Firefly missions, night attacks on convoys were another important priority – carrying searchlights, C-47’s operated in “hunter-killer” teams.  The first C-47 would find a target enemy convoy and fly over it; when it had passed, convoy drivers usually turned headlights back on in time for the second C-47 to strike.

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