LUBBOCK, Texas (Tribune News Service) — Cecil Armstrong, who spends his days and nights in a hospital bed set up in his Lubbock home, tells friends and visitors about his years in the Korean War as a squad leader of an anti-aircraft gun crew.
“What the deal was, I was in this anti-aircraft artillery outfit, and they had us set up around Kimpo Airfield,” he tells a visitor.
“We had a radar station up on a high hill, and we had a crew that took time-about sitting at the telephone for them to let us know whether the enemy was coming in or not. Later, it moved on up onto the airbase, which was real close anyway.”
When Armstrong left the Army in 1954, he was authorized to receive several medals, but knew nothing about it until his wife and caregiver, Betty Armstrong, was reading his discharge papers.
He had been scheduled to receive the Korean Service Medal with one bronze star, a United Service Medal for National Defence and others.
“When I asked what they gave him the medals for, he said, ‘I don’t know — they didn’t give me anything,’ ” Betty said.
He clarifies that oversight with a wry sense of humor: “They gave me medals, but they didn’t particularly tell me about it.”
But friends from South Side Church of Christ, where the Armstrongs are members, knew Sgt. John N. Allen, who knew Capt. Michael G. Zarife, and the medals are now being placed in a shadow box for display at Armstrong’s home.
But Armstrong witnessed a moment of history in Korea along with his job of shooting a 40 mm anti-aircraft gun at MiG-15s that boldly flew within the airspace of Kimpo Airfield, located northwest of Seoul.
The United States needed a sample MiG-15 to determine its capabilities, and North Korean pilot No Kum-sok — though apparently ignorant of that need — was looking for freedom.
Armstrong said, “The United States — and this sounds ridiculous, but it actually happened — the United States offered a $100,000 payment to anybody that would fly one of their MiGs in and defect to us, because we wanted to find out what its capabilities were.”
He said, “We were sitting out on the gun, and one day one of the enemies — I didn’t know whether it was a Chinese or a Russian, didn’t matter because they were both on the same side — one of those enemy planes came in.”
He remembers, “I saw the pilot — they went out and greeted him. He wasn’t coming in to bomb us, he was just coming in to defect.
“Of course, there was this big money reward, but he didn’t even know about it — he was just defecting on his own. So, they gave him the $100,000.”
The North Korean pilot apparently had suddenly become wealthy in money and in freedom when he flew the MiG-15 to Kimpo Airfield. Pilot friends, accounts indicate, were not as fortunate — they were executed as a result of the defection. The pilot’s father had already died, and his mother had earlier escaped to South Korea.
He later wrote a book titled “A MiG-15 to Freedom,” and eventually changed his name to Kenneth Rowe.
Armstrong was a champion of the American-made F-86, which he said was superior to the MiG-15s.
“The F-86s would keep them off of us. They knew better than to fool with the F-86, it was our best jet airplane. So, our airplanes would keep them busy. They weren’t waiting for them to come down and get on us, they were going up there and shooting them down before they could even harass us.”
Armstrong was becoming familiar with a particular characteristic of the military in which casual promises can fall mostly into the category of rumor.
“They had a notice out that if anybody was close to being discharged, they would turn them out early to go to college.”
Armstrong was close to being discharged.
“So, I told them I wanted to go to college, and they shipped me back home.”
He meant to enroll at Texas Tech.
“I didn’t. But the reason I didn’t is that when I got home, I went up to the Veterans Administration here. I said they had a notice that if we wanted to go to college they would send me home early, so I told them I wanted to go early.
“They said they had never heard of it.”
Armstrong had worked in the Post Office before being drafted, and he went back to his old job.
“I retired from the Post Office — I had in 35 years.”
Betty said, “He retired when he was 55 — he played a lot of golf and went to church. He will be 87 next month.”
Though he may not be strong enough to walk around now, Armstrong can see in his memories the 40 mm anti-aircraft gun and know that, for a time, he was an Army corporal helping to protect the Air Force.
©2016 the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (Lubbock, Texas)
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