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Col. C.Q. Brown, right, commander of the 8th Fighter Wing, talks with Korean War fighter pilots Ralph Gibson, Charles Cleveland, and Wilbur "Pete" Carpenter about Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
Col. C.Q. Brown, right, commander of the 8th Fighter Wing, talks with Korean War fighter pilots Ralph Gibson, Charles Cleveland, and Wilbur "Pete" Carpenter about Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. (Ashley Rowland / S&S)
Col. C.Q. Brown, right, commander of the 8th Fighter Wing, talks with Korean War fighter pilots Ralph Gibson, Charles Cleveland, and Wilbur "Pete" Carpenter about Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
Col. C.Q. Brown, right, commander of the 8th Fighter Wing, talks with Korean War fighter pilots Ralph Gibson, Charles Cleveland, and Wilbur "Pete" Carpenter about Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. (Ashley Rowland / S&S)
1st Lt. Jason Curtis, bottom, shows former U.S. Air Force pilot Charles Cleveland the cockpit of an F-16 at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
1st Lt. Jason Curtis, bottom, shows former U.S. Air Force pilot Charles Cleveland the cockpit of an F-16 at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. (Ashley Rowland / S&S)
1st Lt. Jason Curtis shows Korean War veterans and retired colonels (from left) Wilbur "Pete" Carpenter, Kenneth Shealy and Ralph "Hoot" Gibson and retired Lt. Gen. Charles "Chick" Cleveland, seated, the interior of an F-16 fighter jet cockpit at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea.
1st Lt. Jason Curtis shows Korean War veterans and retired colonels (from left) Wilbur "Pete" Carpenter, Kenneth Shealy and Ralph "Hoot" Gibson and retired Lt. Gen. Charles "Chick" Cleveland, seated, the interior of an F-16 fighter jet cockpit at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea. (Ashley Rowland / S&S)

KUNSAN AIR BASE, South Korea

On a lonely, scrub-covered hilltop overlooking this remote seaside base, Charles Cleveland pumped his fist as an F-16 fighter jet roared into the air and over the Yellow Sea.

“Hold on guys, you’re slowing up the briefing,” the 79-year-old yelled as the jet passed.

Cleveland was one of eight fighter pilots from the Korean War who visited South Korea this week to mark the 60th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force.

What they found was a country — and an Air Force — vastly different from the one they left decades ago.

“I thought to myself, this poor country will have a hard time recovering,” said Cleveland, a retired lieutenant general, who was a first lieutenant during the Korean War. “It looks to me as if it’s almost skyrocketed. It gives me a feeling of great pride to have contributed to it.”

The pilots — several of whom were fighter aces, having shot down at least five enemy aircraft during the war — visited U.S. Forces Korea leaders at Yongsan Garrison, toured the Korean War Memorial Museum, and met South Korean defense ministry officials during the week. They split into groups on Tuesday and toured Kunsan and Osan air bases, where they looked at modern-day jets and weapons and spoke with pilots about their experiences.

Air Force 1st Lt. Sarah McDaniel sat beside former astronaut and fighter pilot Buzz Aldrin during a luncheon at Osan, where he answered questions about flying in the war and walking on the moon.

“It was the experience of a lifetime,” she said. “Anything we threw at him, he was more than willing to take on.”

To the airmen at Kunsan, the veterans — who flew in air battles every day — were the stuff of legend.

“You’re touching history,” said Maj. Kenny Smith of the Combined Forces Command. “These guys were at the birth of the Air Force. These guys saw what the Air Force looked like in its infancy. They’re really icons as far as I’m concerned."

First Lt. Jason Curtis, 26, showed the veterans the cockpit of an F-16 and told them about his grandfather, a pilot who fought during World War II.

He said he envied the veterans for being able to fight everyday.

“I would love to experience that in my time,” he said.

Ret. Col. Ralph “Hoot” Gibson, 82, said it wasn’t hard finding veterans who wanted to go to South Korea for the Air Force anniversary, but it was hard finding ones who, in their 70s and 80s, were physically able to make the trip.

He said today’s airmen are better educated than in the past.

“It makes you swell up with pride,” Gibson said.

When Col. Wilbur “Pete” Carpenter left South Korea 55 years ago, the country was a pile of rubble. The 78-year-old returned on Sunday to a luxury hotel in bustling downtown Seoul and was shocked by the changes he saw in the country.

“It’s like night and day. If the United States had advanced as fast as the South Koreans did, we would have been on Mars by now,” said Carpenter, who carried a faded orange baseball cap with 100 stroke marks on the bill – one for each mission he flew.

Kenneth Shealy, 78, lived in Suwon at a barracks with no latrines or showers during the war.

“We got off the airplane there, and you didn’t see anything except the native folks standing around the bonfire, trying to stay warm in November,” he said. Shealy saw how much Seoul had changed when he watched the Summer Olympics on television in 1988.

“Here, it looks like it’s the entire country that’s changed,” he said.

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