October 2010

The Search for a Korean War Hero

Volume 93, Issue 10
Category: 

This story is about my attempts to find a heroic pilot so that I could thank him for his fearless and exceptional combat flying skills, which saved the lives of 42 Marines.

I made it to Korea in the 4th Replacement Draft in January 1951. I joined the First Marine Division at Pohang on 28 Jan. and was assigned to the machine-gun section. Company C, 1st Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment. I was put into one of the gun crews attached to the 3d Platoon, first led by First Lieutenant Robert "Bat" Masterson and later, in April, by Second Lieutenant Merrill Norton, who was a machine-gun lieutenant.

One of our assignments. Objective 44. was about 1 .000 yards from Horseshoe Ridge. We set up our position and waited for the enemy to attack. Lighting conditions were poor, and when two Chinese got within 3 feet of our gun barrel, we opened fire and the full-force battle began.

After taking a number of objectives and engaging in one firefight after another, our company eventually reached Objective 44 on the afternoon of 22 April. This position on the Quantico Line provided an excellent vantage point since it was the highest ground overlooking a valley.

We had just enough time to dig our emplacements before dark. It was believed that the enemy could never make a successful attack against this ridge. Our assumptions were proven wrong« as the Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) hurled 2,000 men against our position at 2100. They made their way up the slopes when visibility was poor, peppered us with artillery, mortar shells and small-arms fire. Then they began a mass attack with waves of burp gun-wielding foot soldiers. As one wave was mowed down with our smallamis and machine guns, the Chinese would send another wave.

An artillery forward observer team was about 30 yards behind our machine gun. During a violent night attack on 22 April, a grenade went into their bunker. Private First Class Herbert Littleton, a radio operator for the FO team, hurled himself on the deadly missile, saving the other members of the team. For his actions, he posthumously was awarded the Medal of Honor.

There were 42 of us left the next morning. After we pulled off of otir original position, the 8 1 mm mortar FO had us dig our position on a narrow ridge. He told us to dig deep because he was going to drop a mortar round about 20 yards from our machine-gun position. He cautioned us not to stick our heads up until the third mortar round went off. but then we should open up with all our firepower. The Chinese came at us screaming and hollering, but our plan was very effective and none made it to our position. After that attack into our prepared fires, they decided not to attack "Suicide Charlie" for the rest of the night.

During the early morning of 23 April we were outnumbered again, and the fighting was fierce. We were expending ammo at such a high rate, resupply was not possible, and we might have been overrun had "Easy" Co, just behind us, not given us half their ammunition. 1 went along the ridge to see if I could contact anyone from 5th Marines.

Later, we again thought that we might be overrun, but an F4U Corsair aircraft came to our rescue around 0800. The pilot came in from the right, starting low in the valley and climbed up the side of the ridge. It was an invigorating feeling, standing on the ridge, holding my Browning Automatic RiUe and waving to the pilot. He gave a thumbs-up and. in just seconds, attacked the Chinese in front of our guns.

When he passed, his left wing was no more than 30 yards from me. His ammo finally ran out, but the pilot continued to make simulated attacks to further ward off the enemy. We later found out that it was Marine Fighter Squadron 214, the "Black Sheep" squadron, that so heroically gave us assistance. Without that Corsair pilot, a true member of an airground team, we never would have made it out alive.

Over the years. I have thought about how fortunate our company was to have that Marine Corsair pilot come to our rescue. I considered locating the pilot to thank him for saving us that day. One year, while on vacation. \ visited the Confederate Air Force Museum in Harlingen, Texas, so I could see a Corsair up close. The F4U-4 was in Dallas for repairs, but in the gift shop I bought a pin and some pictures of a Corsair. Since then, I have worn the aircraft pin on either my lapel or my old Marine utility cover. People sometimes ask me if I flew the Corsair, and my response is, "No, but one saved my life in Korea in 1951." I always hoped that one day the pilot who saved us would ask me about the pin.

When 1 saw books about the Korean air war. I would search for 23 April 1 95 1 . and the Chinese Spring Offensive. I learned that VMF-2 14 was flying from USS Sicily (CVE-1 1 8) in support of the 7th Marines. At times I wondered if I would ever find that great pilot, but. regardless. I knew I would never forget him. To the Marines who survived that day, he was our hero.

Some years back, a POW/MIA organization at the Pentagon placed a notice in Leatherneck, trying to locate anyone who had been at Horseshoe Ridge during the Chinese Offensive. After I contacted the group, I received a map of the Hwachon area, including our old Objective 44.

In the June 2008 issue of Leatherneck there was a notice that USS Sicily was having a reunion in Reno. Nev.. and my hopes came alive again. I spoke with !he reunion chairman, Robert Wagner, who happened to be an aircrewman in the Korean War-era Navy VS-931 antisubmarine squadron. Wagner agreed to help me with my search.

Wagner told me to look at USS Sicily deck logs for a few days before and after 23 April 195 1, for information on VMF214 and its pilots' activities while on board the carrier. The National Archives and Records Administration indicated VMF-2 14 was not on USS Sicily on 23 April, but had left the carrier and was landbased in Korea. The archives provided me with a portion of the squadron's historical diary that listed all flights in Korea by the VMF-2 1 4 squadron on 23 April 1 95 1 . Thai information, along with the map that the POW/MIA organization provided, proved very helpful.

Using the information from VMF-2 14's historical diary. Wagner constructed a spreadsheet that gave details of each flight leaders Corsair map coordinates and mission on 23 April. The flight leader's name was mentioned for each flight, but his wingman was not identified.

By measuring distance using the Hwachon map and calculating the estimated time of arrival over our area, it was concluded that someone named Major Ochoa was the pilot who saved us. Since the Corsairs always flew in pairs, his wingman also assisted in the action at Objective 44. However, his identity has not been determined.

In the Marine Corps History Division's pamphlet, "Counteroffensive: U.S. Marines From Pohang to No Name Line" by Lieutenant Colonel Ronald J. Brown. USMCR (Ret), one of the publications in the "Marines in the Korean War Commemorative Series," it's noted that, "On 16 May. Lieutenant Colonel James W Poindexter took the reins of VMF-214 from Maj Edward Ochoa." From that we learned Genoa's first name, and that he was the commanding officer of VMF-2 14 on 23 April.

Next I contacted the Marine Corps Aviation Association. I told a representative that I was looking for contact information for Edward Ochoa and explained why I needed the information. I was given the last available contact data, which was several years old.

On 28 March 2009, I called the phone number that I was given. It was such a great feeling to talk to Mrs. Lisa Ochoa and tell her about her husband's heroism. She told me he passed away on 1 1 Sept. 2008. With tears of happiness and regret, I realized it was too late to shake this great Marine's hand and thank him for what he had done. However, on 1 5 Aug. 2009, 1 visited members of Ochoa s family in California and was able to tell them about Ochoa s heroic efforts that saved 42 Marines.

I learned a great deal about this Marine warrior from his family. He was born in Laredo, Texas, on 22 June 1920. While at North East Junior College at Monroe, La., on a football scholarship. Ochoa learned to fly in a government-sponsored program. He joined the Marine Corps in 1941 and became an aviation cadet at Naval Air Station Pcnsacola, FIa. Later, he was sent to Efate Island in the South Pacific with Marine Scout Bomber Squadron (VMSB) 144 and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for his personal heroism.

He was called back into the Corps during the early part of the Korean War and flew F4U-4 Corsairs from USS Sicily and later from the land-based airstrip K-I near Pusan. Maj Ochoa was the commanding officer of VMF-2 14 when he was promoted to lieutenant colonel.

After active duty, he joined a Marine Reserve squadron in Los Alamitos, Calif, in 1954. He married in 1968 and retired from the Marine Corps in 1978 as a colonel. He was a flight-test engineer and commercial accident investigator for Douglas Aircraft Company for 20 years. Col Ochoa is survived by his wife. Lisa; two children, Leon Rodriquez and Marlyn Dinon; and their families.

I have a picture of Edward Ochoa standing beside a VMF-214 Corsair. When I look at it, I can put the pilot right in the cockpit. It is a great feeling and blessing that I have had a wonderful life, my wife and three daughters because a Marine pilot. Col Edward Ochoa. saved me and my fellow Marines. May God be with him and bless his family forever.

Above: For decades, Sgt William E. "Buddy" Hixon pursued identification of the Marine pilot who came to the rescue of Hixon's unit near Horseshoe Ridge on 23 April 1951.

Below: In 2008, Hixon's diligence paid off as he confirmed that Capt Edward Ochoa, flying an F4U-4, was that pilot. This launched his search for Ochoa.

Assistant gunner CpI Buddy Nixon and gunner CpI H. P.Whitman in Korea, 1951.

CoI Edward Ochoa on Father's Day 2008 and his wife, Lisa Ochoa.

Below left: In September 2009, Buddy Hixon (right) and Bob Wagner met at a Marine reunion, and Wagner presented Hixon with a USS Sicily challenge coin and certificate explaining the challenge coin tradition.

Below right: Buddy Hixon drives his fully restored Korean War 1954 M38A1 vintage jeep to Marine functions.

Former Marine Sergeant William E. “Buddy” Hixon joined the Corps in July 1948 and was assigned as an infantryman. In Korea, he was reassigned to a machine-gun section. He left active duty in 1953 but continues to promote the Marine Corps at various events, driving his
fully restored 1954 M38A1 jeep.

In Hixon’s living room on a small table, he has constructed a memorial to Col Ochoa consisting of a model of a VMF-214 F4U-4 Corsair, a photo of Ochoa standing in front of his aircraft, and Robert Wagner’s VS-931 challenge coin.