At the RCAF's No. 1 Fighter Wing base in Marville, France, on Dec. 2, 1957, Flight Lieutenant Claude LaFrance (left) and Flight Lieutenant Lawrence Spurr receive the American Distinguished Flying Cross from Major-General R.M. Lee, USAF.Department of National Defence
Flight Lieutenant Claude LaFrance (left) is decorated by General R.M. Lee, USAF for service in Korea.Department of National Defence
"Of course, at that time, you’re on your own. You’re in cloud. You can’t see anything but the enemy has radar so obviously you’re vulnerable. And you spend a lot of your time not only looking at clouds but also looking behind you."
When the Korean War started, of course, when Canada decided to support the United Nations and get involved, Canada committed to a brigade, an army brigade and to a naval squad. There was no way that the air force would be able to field some combat units because we were right at the launching of a major reorganization of the air force with Sabre aircraft* which was going to come on-line to meet NATO** commitments in the air division in Europe on the one hand, and CF-100 squadrons to meet commitments to NORAD*** in Canada at the time.
The air force made an arrangement and that was, I think, in later in 1951 to send one Canadian fighter pilot to fly with each US Air Force Sabre squadron in Korea and there were six of them, which meant that at any one time we had six Canadians flying on secondment to the US Air Force to get in the combat experience in that kind of environment.
When I went to the US Air Force I was sent to the 51st [Fighter] Wing which was based in Suwon, which was about, I guess, 20 nautical miles south of Seoul [South Korea]. And with the border had more or less stabilized, or still some odd fighting going on, but the border was north of Seoul, not too far north. But our operational work was at the Yalu,^ so some 200 nautical miles north of that. So I was based in Suwon. And when I arrived I was assigned to No. 16 [Fighter-Interceptor] Squadron for what they called “clobber college.” They looked at you when you were flying to make sure you’re going to be a threat to the enemy and not to yourself or your buddies, sort of thing. So that only involved about 10 flights or something like that. And then I was transferred to 39 [Fighter-Interceptor] Squadron on the same base to start operational flying.
Well, initially like everybody else, I was a wingman. And in those days we were, and perhaps even still today, we were flying in flights of four. And the flight had one leader and his wingman, and a deputy leader which we called element leader and his wingman. The job of the wingman is not so much to attack, but to be prepared to, well, to support his leader. Be prepared to defend them if necessary and particularly to keep a very good lookout to make sure that when the leader is doing an attack that there’s… and concentrating on that there’s not another enemy aircraft that comes behind him to shoot him. So I had my first, I guess, 20 missions or so as a wingman. And I was in several combats but didn’t really have a chance to be aggressive myself. I was, in those combats, I was on the defensive.
The US Air Force was flying also Mustangs, [North American] P-51s on ground attack and our job was to keep the MiGs^^ off them. And depending on the situation and where the targets would be, we would be in fairly close, supporting them at higher altitude and watching them and making sure no MiG would come in because many of these aircraft I mentioned, on ground attack, were in a category, unable to fight against a MiG. They would be not exactly sitting targets but they would be very vulnerable to them. So our job was to keep them off.
At other times our job was to go farther north and farther away to engage the MiGs before they could even get close to where the attacks were going on. And you’ll recall that the Yalu River goes from northeast to southwest and if you go to the northeast close to the Vladivostok [Russia], that was pretty far. But we did some work there. In fact I led a formation of 16, you know, very close to the limits of Manchuria and Russia in that area which meant that we were far away from home and we had to fly with, to go in combat with still enough fuel to get back home. Of course, the MiGs didn’t have that problem. You know, they could almost glide home. In other words, we’re taking the war to them which is, of course, the proper way of doing things.
This question of getting our met[eorological] information, what we had to do is in the wee hours of the morning, like about two or three o’clock in the morning, with an F-86 pilot over enemy territory, and go from bottom to top of the clouds and to get the different layers of cloud and drop that down and then come back. And then at about four o’clock in the morning or 4:30, then the pilot who’d done that had to brief the pilots on what he saw in the weather over there so you’d have a pretty good idea and you’d be able to plan your flight on that.
I did one of those flight missions once. Of course, at that time, you’re on your own. You’re in cloud. You can’t see anything but the enemy has radar so obviously you’re vulnerable. And you spend a lot of your time not only looking at clouds but also looking behind you.
So there was my leader, for a flight leader and myself, each one with our wingman and we came in behind two MiGs. My leader took one of them, broke hard and they went into their fight and I didn’t follow because I was busy with the other guy, their leader. I went and placed myself in the shooting position behind him and of course either he saw it or he was warned by radar and he broke very hard. So we did some pretty hard turning but to keep, what I did was gain some altitude which brought my speed down which allowed me to turn very tightly because my speed was lower and come back down on him behind him and started shooting at him.
As soon as I started shooting, he levelled off from his tight manoeuvres in preparation for bail out. I later found out that I started hitting him on the wing route along the fuselage not very far from where the pilot would be. Now that, I don’t know that I hit him of course, as a pilot. So I adjusted my shooting to destroy his engine which I did and as the engine started spewing out smoke, of course, I was in the smoke right on top of him. I saw a big shadow going on top. As it turned out, he had bailed out at that time. So then, when I got out I was flying formation on an empty aircraft. So that’s what happened.
*North American F-86 Sabre jet fighters
**North Atlantic Treaty Organization
***North American Air Defense Command
^River bordering North Korean and China
^^Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-15 fighter jets