Local Korean War veteran Jim Roppe served as a gunner in the Air Force

by: RON HALVORSON - Korean War veteran Jim Roppe today.

Described in 1950 by President Harry S. Truman as a “police action,” the undeclared military action known as the Korean War quickly escalated.

By the time it was over three years later, more than 1.2 million combatants from both sides — Americans, Chinese, international units with the United Nations, North Koreans, and South Koreans — were casualties of the conflict. Another 1.6 million Korean civilians were killed or went missing.

Even so, it was largely ignored by much of Western society, and for whatever reason, never truly resided in America's consciousness. It became known as the “Forgotten War.”

Prineville resident and Korean War veteran Jim Roppe knows this all too well.

“I was over there for two tours,” said the 79-year-old Roppe. “Nobody paid any attention when I left, and nobody paid any attention when I came home. There were no parades or anyone greeting you at the airport, or anything like that. My parents never asked what I was doing or where I was at. My children never inquired.”

However, the war is far from forgotten by Roppe. His collection of photographs, documents, and other military memorabilia only serves to complement his vivid memory of those years.

Roppe’s early life was like many in the 1930s.

Born in Montana, he spent his early years moving from small town to small town with his family, while his father searched for work.

“That was the tail end of the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ era,” he commented.

A two-week trip in a “rattle-trap car” to San Francisco, Calif. — where his father planned to go to school — was followed by a move to Bremerton, Wash., the loss of their home in a fire, and living in a travel trailer. During this time Roppe worked a paper route, had a newsstand, and was a grocery store boxboy. He lived with his grandfather and uncle for a bit, herding sheep and tamping wool. By the time he was 14, he was an assistant grocery store manager, and at 15, drove commercial truck. His parents divorced along the way, and when Roppe was in high school, his mother remarried.

“I seemed to be the odd-man out,” he recalled, “and was not a good student. I finished the 11th grade, and I did it poorly. So I decided to join the military and get away from home.”

Active duty in the air force

With his mother’s permission — and likely her encouragement — in 1951, he joined the U.S. Air Force on his 17th birthday, soon boarded a troop train, and headed to basic training at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas.

“They said, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I said I wanted to be a truck driver. They said, ‘Naah, you don’t join the Air Force to be a truck driver.’”

Instead, he was given an aptitude test and sent to school to become a remote control turret systems mechanic. He excelled.

“Believe it or not, I got a 4.00 point grade average in that school, and discovered I really wasn’t as stupid as I thought I was.”

After a command decision to make the gun mechanics the actual gunners, he was assigned to the 11-man crew of a Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber, and joined “Hell from the Heavens,” the 344th Bombardment Squadron stationed at an air base in Japan. The B-29 was the same aircraft as the Enola Gay, used to drop the first atomic bomb during World War II.

A gunner on a B-29

Roppe’s job was to defend the B-29 against Russian MiG fighters — problematic since the gun system was designed to be used against slower, propeller-driven aircraft, not the faster jets. According to Roppe, the gunner sat inside the plane — looking through a “blister” — and used a sight that controlled the guns, located outside the bomber. A basic analog computer tried to adjust the firing based on the target’s distance, speed, and other variables. It was a system that couldn’t quite keep up unless the aircraft were coming directly toward or away from the gunner.

Another problem was tactical.

“When they first started the Korean War,” he said, “they flew bombing missions like they did in World War II. Whole bunches of bombers spread out in a formation, designed so the gunners could protect the formation.”

Many B-29s were lost, Roppe said, and so they changed tactics. Instead of a formation, the bombers flew in streams, one after another. They also switched to nighttime raids.

This made it difficult for the MiGs — without radar — to locate the planes. Instead, they had to rely on shadows cast by the bombers on moonlit nights, or on arrays of ground-based searchlights. They also tried to use a MiG as a decoy, hoping fire from a B-29 would give away their position. Gunners were instructed to hold their fire at all times, unless fired upon.

Nighttime raids also challenged the bombers. Since they couldn’t see the targets, they had to rely on a radio triangulation system. They would follow the direction of a transmission from South Korea until it intersected a transmission from a ship at sea. This was the precise target location, and at that point, bombs would be automatically released — hopefully, not on a plane below.

“If you weren’t real careful when you went over the target,” said Roppe, “if one plane was too far ahead, and on top of the one below it, you dropped your bombs on it.”

Roppe said he flew on 23 nighttime raids over North Korea during his first tour. Each took between eight and 10 hours, but they were only in combat for 90 minutes — an interesting hour and a half.

After the first couple of planes passed over, he said, the North Koreans would take all the searchlights and cross them in the sky where the B-29s were flying, and since the bombers were in a line, they all had to fly through the same illuminated area. Then, the North Koreans would plaster the area with their anti-aircraft guns.

“So you had to fly through that,” Roppe said. “In daylight raids it looked pretty innocuous. It didn’t look dangerous at all. But at night, when you could see what was happening, you could see all these shards of shrapnel coming at you, and going away from the explosion. It was just beautiful to look at, but it was deadly to fly through.”

The flight there and back was also a challenge, he said. When the plane was depressurized - either to guard against explosive decompression in the event of a flak strike, or as the result of damage — there was no heat. The crew also had to use oxygen.

“A lot of people don’t realize it, but even in July, at 30,000 feet it’s 60 degrees below zero up there. If it’s 60 below zero outside, and all you’ve got is an eighth-inch sheet of metal between you and that, it’s pretty cold inside.”

The biggest fear

Beyond the flak, Roppe said their biggest concern was having to jump out of the airplane if they were hit. It would involve jumping into a really cold, pitch-black sky, with no oxygen, and going into a free fall up to the point where the airman would guess when to deploy the parachute, because they wouldn’t be able to see the ground.

“You had to kind of count and time how fast you thought you were falling and how far you thought you were falling.”

An unanticipated change in elevation — a high ridge, for example — would cause deadly complications.

Water presented a peculiar problem. If you landed with your parachute, you had the danger of getting tangled and drowning. The best option was to relieve yourself of the parachute before you hit, and free-fall the last bit into the water. Free-fall from too great a height, though, and you’d die.

“Jumping out of the airplane was our worst fear, and certainly, my worst fear. That’s what scared the hell out of us.”

During one raid, shrapnel took out one of the four engines as they approached their target. Rather than turning back, the pilot continued the mission, and just to be safe, landed at the Suwon fighter base in South Korea instead of going on to Japan.

“That was one of my more interesting aspects of combat flying,” he said. “B-29 bombers are used to landing on concrete, but these landing fields were strips of metal with holes in them. You just leveled the ground and laid these strips of metal on top of it, and the planes would land on that metal. As we landed, our wing tips were going across the fighters parked alongside the runway.”

For his efforts, the pilot was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross

“The rest of us got the air medal,” Roppe said. “We didn’t have a choice. We had to go with him or jump out.”

This was also where Roppe watched as a fighter jet made an emergency landing — its wheels were up and the metal-against-metal slide created a shower of sparks. Once at rest, a pilot emerged from the bullet-riddled aircraft — future baseball Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams!

A good life and fresh purpose

Roppe said that except for some concern when they saw flak they had to fly through — and the possibility of jumping — they never thought much about the missions. The crew fully expected to come back and play pool the next morning. His life was a good one, and almost surreal.

“We felt guilty about it, because we could fly over Korea at night, and see the front lines. We could see the firing going in both directions, from five miles up in the air, knowing that these poor soldiers were down there in two feet of snow, at 30-below weather, just freezing their buns off, and we were going back to get a massage and a hot tub.

“When we were dropping bombs, we were detached. We were so far removed from it. We didn’t see it. We didn’t hear it. We had quite a pleasant life.”

Roppe said he returned to the mainland for a year, and was then sent back to Korea to fly on the B-26 where he spent most of his time on post-war reconnaissance missions. He was fully discharged, after some reserve duty, in 1959.

His war experience changed him, he said. With fresh confidence and purpose he earned his high school diploma, went to junior college, and ended up in the world of banking and finance. He worked stints as an office manager for Pacific Finance in both Oregon and Washington, and was a loan officer, bank manager, and executive. Somehow he found time to serve as the volunteer assistant fire chief/paramedic for the Monmouth-Independence, Ore., fire department. He closed out his career 18 years ago as manager of Western Bank’s Prineville and Redmond branches.

“This was my college education, truthfully,” Roppe said of his military service. “I really grew up, matured, and benefitted a great deal from it. What I did was not spectacular. It was something that thousands of other guys were doing.”

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