N.C. veteran's Korean War memories remain vivid
By JIMMY TOMLIN | The High Point Enterprise, N.C. | Published: August 4, 2013
TRINITY, N.C. — They call it “The Forgotten War,” but Bill Hutchens will never forget.
Even six decades later — the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Korean War armistice was observed last weekend — Hutchens can tell you all about it: When it began. When it ended. And, most notably, how he served during the war.
“They don’t call it a war, they call it a conflict,” the 82-year-old Trinity man says with a chuckle. “We always said, ‘If it’s a conflict and not a war, why don’t they just send some policemen over here to fight the conflict and let us go home?’ ”
The truth, though, is that Hutchens is proud of his service, regardless of how much — or how little — recognition he and his fellow Korean War veterans receive.
Hutchens served in the U.S. Air Force from 1951 to 1955, spending 10 months of that time in Korea. Though trained as a weapons mechanic, he ended up playing a much more unique role — he flew 75 night missions behind enemy lines as one of the Fireflies, a unit of flare-launchers that illuminated enemy targets for Air Force, Navy and Marine bombers.
“Reconnaissance would find a troop movement going south, and they would call us and say they had a buildup of troop movement and they needed flares at night,” Hutchens explains.
“So we would load up 350 to 400 flares, then we’d take off after dark, find the area and start dropping flares. The flares would light up the targets, and the bombers would come in behind us and drop napalm bombs on the troops and everything that was part of the troop movement. They would go in and just tear the place up.”
The Fireflies’ flares illuminated trains, bridges and troop concentrations, making the bombers’ jobs much easier.
Hutchens says he was “involuntarily volunteered” to be a Firefly. He had initially been asked to volunteer for the dangerous missions, but declined.
“Then one night I was laying in my bunk when somebody kicked the door in and said, ‘Hutchens, hit the flight line immediately, dressed to fly,’ and I knew what was going on,” he recalls.
“So I went to the flight line, and they put a parachute on my back, a .45 on my hip and a carbine on my shoulder, and they gave me a little piece of paper that had American writing on one side and Chinese and Korean on the other side. I said, ‘What’s this for?’ They said, ‘It’s in case you get shot down.’ And I said, ‘What?!’ ”
According to Hutchens, the paper essentially said, “I’m an American soldier — if you help me, we will reward you.”
That first mission — a nearly three-hour flight on Sept. 15, 1951 — was scary, Hutchens says, but the missions became less so as he got more experience.
“After the first few missions, it was just another job,” he says. “It was work.”
Hutchens often flew two missions a night aboard a C-47 transport plane, each of them lasting approximately three to four hours. Some missions were more memorable than others, he says.
“We dropped a flare in the back of an ammo truck one night,” he says with a grin, “and it went boom-boom-boom.”
During his service as a Firefly, Hutchens had the opportunity to meet the war’s most famous bomber — major-league baseball star Ted Williams — and a bomber who would later become famous, future astronaut Neil Armstrong.
On April 4, 1952, Hutchens flew his 75th and final mission as a Firefly, and then was cleared by his commanding officer to return to the United States, where he remained in the service until 1955.
After returning to Trinity, Hutchens enjoyed a long career with Marsh Armfield before retiring and moving to Emerald Isle in 1990. He moved back to Trinity this past October.
Proudly wearing a hat that identifies him as a Korean War veteran, Hutchens says he’s extremely proud of his military service.
“Somebody asked me, ‘Would you go back and do it again?’ ” he says. “And I said, ‘Yeah, if I was 20 years old, I sure would.’ ”