History gets saved at the last minute
Was up at the LHS this afternoon reading “airplane porn mags” and found out that last year the second-oldest C-119 “flying boxcar” was up for sale as aluminum scrap, when the AF Museum discovered it was the second-oldest C-119 left in existence, and the sole survivor of the eight C-119s that dropped the Treadway Bridge to the Marines retreating from the Chosin Reservoir, which made their escape possible. Not only that, but it “dropped the last part of the bridge.” Which means it is the airplane described below, from my book “The Frozen Chosen.”
Well done, Air Force Museum!
“However, the road was not yet open. The Chinese had blown a 24-foot gap in the critical bridge halfway down the pass, where water from the Changjin Reservoir moved through a tunnel into four giant pipes called “penstocks.” The bridge crossed the penstocks at a point where the road clung to an almost sheer cliff. The gap would somehow have to be bridged if the Marines were to get their tanks, artillery, and vehicles down the pass.
“Division engineer Lt. Colonel Partridge had made an aerial reconnaissance of the situation on 6 December and determined the gap could be spanned by four sections of an M-2 steel “Treadway” bridge. While he had no such bridge sections, fortuitously there was a detachment of the Treadway Bridge Company from the Army’s 58th Engineer Battalion at Koto-ri, with two Brockway trucks that could carry the bridge sections if they could be air-delivered.
“A Treadway Bridge is composed of four sections, each of which weighs 4,000 pounds. There were eight sections of bridge located in Japan; these were trucked to Tachikawa Air Base outside Tokyo on 6 December. Eight C-119s flew up from Ashiya Air Base to pick up the sections and return them to Ashiya, where the Army 2348th Quartermaster Airborne Supply and Packaging Company packed the sections for air drop with a 48-foot cargo parachute on each end; they were then loaded on the C-119s, one section per plane. The C-119s then flew to Yonpo, where one section was test-dropped successfully, landing dented but useable.
“At 0930 hours, December 7, the eight C-119s arrived over the drop zone outside Koto-ri, which was marked with orange panels. Aboard each transport, all the ropes holding each bridge section had been cut but one, which remained in place to prevent a premature drop. It would be cut with an axe as one very small parachute, spring-loaded to throw it into the slipstream, would then deploy a larger parachute that actually pulled the bridge section out. The spring was tripped by the crew chief on the pilot’s command while another crew member cut the last rope. The whole operation took five seconds, which was critical if the sections were to land successfully and safely.
“The first section was dropped successfully on target. The rest of the C-119s followed, unloading the bridge sections on order from the engineers on the ground. Five sections were dropped successfully, while the sixth fell into Chinese hands. The seventh was damaged when it hit the ground.
“The last C-119 was flown by Captain Jim Inks. As he approached the drop zone, he gave the order to his crew chief, who pulled the spring release while the assistant crew chief cut the last rope. “Unfortunately, that pilot chute mechanism failed to work, and we were past the drop zone with our load still aboard,” Inks later recalled. The situation inside the plane rapidly went from bad to worse. “We were in a box canyon with a loose load in the cargo compartment, and it was doubtful if I had the power to climb the overloaded aircraft over the mountains to get out of there.” The canyon wasn’t wide enough for a 180-degree turn. Inks was sure he could dump the load if he climbed steeply, which would allow them to escape the canyon, but this section of the bridge was vital if the entire thing was to be successfully assembled. Without the drag chutes, there was the possibility the bridge section would hang up in the cargo compartment. Inks ordered the cargo crew to stay forward of the bridge section, while he, his co-pilot and the navigator looked for a way out. “The navigator picked a canyon coming in from the east that he thought would continue downgrade, but as soon as we turned into it, we realized it was upgrade and pretty steep.” Meanwhile, the cargo crew managed to get a rope across the 2,500 pound section and secure it somewhat. “We were in a hell of a spot.”
“The C-119 was less than 200 feet above the rapidly-rising canyon floor, when suddenly Inks spotted another canyon beyond the ridge to the left. “We skidded into it not ten feet from the rocks and started back toward the main canyon we had just left.” Inks managed to bring the C-119 around and was headed toward the drop zone again. “The crew chief managed to hit the bridge with a sledge hammer that started it on its way out, it didn’t hang up, and our span of the bridge was delivered fifteen minutes late.”