Korean War Legacy Project

James Hillier


James Hillier grew up in a military town near Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. All 175 boys in his high school graduating class enlisted in 1950. He enlisted in the Air Force and went through basic and gunner training in Texas. James Hillier elaborates on his responsibilities as a gunner, serving in England during the Korean War. His squadron was a part of a top secret classified mission bombing sights in Korea, flying over from England.

Video Clips

Flying from England to Korea

James Hollier describes his assignment in the 64th Bombardment Squadron flying from England to Korea for three years. He describes his responsibilities as a tailgunner during the Korean War. He also elaborates bombing in high altitude attacking North Korea's fighter planes.

Tags: Impressions of Korea,North Koreans,Physical destruction

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Secretly Stationed in England

James Hillier describes why his squadron was stationed in England and traveled to Korea. His unit was considered classified. The press believed they were in England to protect the European Alliance from the Soviet Union.

Tags: Communists,Impressions of Korea

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Serving Despite Skin Grafts

James Hollier describes his aircraft being hit three times. He details a time when he was burned so badly that he needed skin grafts, recovering over a 15 month period. He describes the importance of getting back on his feet to continue serving his country.

Tags: Front lines,Personal Loss,Weapons

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Video Transcript

[Abrupt Beginning of Recorded Material]

J:    James Hillier.  H I L L I E R. Birthday is July 15, 1932. 

I: Wow. So tell me about your family, your siblings and your parents, when you were born, and growing up.

J: I had one sister, one brother, and 32 cousins. [laughs]

I: Are you the eldest, or?

J: Oh no.

I: You’re the second.

J: Almost the youngest. 

I: Oh, okay.

J: Oh I am the youngest now. 

I: Yep.

J: And the oldest.

I: Where were you born?
J: Sparta, Wisconsin.

I: Could you spell it?  

J: S P A R T A

I: Sparta Wisconsin.

J: Wisconsin.

I: And tell me about the school you went through.

J: The schools I went to were local schools, you know, we had one grade school, one intermittent school

I: hmm

J: And one high school.

I: And when did you graduate high school?

J: I graduated high school 1950.

I: And what was the name of high school?
J: Sparta

I: Sparta

J: Yeah

I: Did you know anything about Korea at the time? 


J: Zip. Nothin’. I wasn’t the world traveler, and in high school we didn’t teach that much international you know about countries. You know I mean we knew about Japan, naturally, and we knew about Indonesia, and about the other countries involved in the Second World War but that was it. 

I: Did you know anything about China?

J: Oh yeah. [laughter]

I: But you didn’t know anything about Korea?

J: Nothing about Korea.

I: Did you did you know where it is? 

J: Well I found out.

I: But later, right?

J: Later. [laughter]


I: So, how did you come to know the breakout of the Korean War?

J: The breakout?

I: Yeah

J: The start? 

I: Yeah. How did you come to know of it?

J: High school and news. Local news. You know. Ah, we were only 14 miles from Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Big artillery base. Army base.

I: Fort what?

J: Fort McCoy. 

I: McCoy.

J: Yeah.

I: Mm-hmm.

J: Army base. 

I: Mm-hmm.

J: Which was home to the long-time artillery training that’s what it was and my uncles were all National Guard. You know the whole town was National Guard.


J: We were all being prepped for service in the military, because ah, the Wisconsin boys, the farm boys particularly, were all volunteers. They volunteered in every war came along. It was beat into our heads that it was a civic duty to ah serve at least one term in the military, so upon graduation, the high school graduating class of boys would in mass go down to the recruiting station, pick their branch of service and enlist. 

I: So you enlisted, not drafted?

J: We all did.


I: You enlist?

J: Yeah.

I: When did you enlist?

J: Ah, June 1950.

I: And did you know that you might be dragged into the Korean War by joining the army at the time?

J: Well we all knew that. Everybody who graduated knew that. You know, we knew we were going to go and serve in one way or another. And ah since the Korean War was just starting we knew that we were going to be serving in Korea. 

I: You knew it?

J: We all knew it. 

I: But you were not afraid?


J: I was scared to death. Yeah, and ah, but we knew it was part of our duty to our country.

I: Mm-hmm.

J: To serve one term in the service.

I: So you were scared to death but still you volunteered to join in the army.

J: I didn’t join the army. I joined the Army Air Corps. 

I: Air Corps.

J: Yeah. But we all joined – ah, some went in the Navy, some went in the Marines, you know they all picked their own branch of service but they all went in. 175 boys graduated in the 1950 class and 175 boys enlisted in one branch or the other of the service.

I: Um-hmm. So where did you get the basic

J: Basic training?

I: Yeah.

J: Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

I: Lackland

J: Lackland

I: Could you spell it?

J: L-A-C-K-I-N-G

I: Lackland. L-Y-N.

J: Yeah.

I: Lackland Air Base in Texas?

J: Yeah. San Antonio, Texas.

I: San Antonio. Yeah

J: Right next door to Scott Field.

I: Yep. And what kind of training did you get?

J: Well, besides basic training I got gunnery training.

I: Mm-hmm.

J: And that was it. All Wisconsin boys are always picked for, you know, particularly the farm boys like myself, were all picked for gunnery school of one kind or another. [laughter]

I: So what was the unit, Army Air Corps what?


J: Army Air Corps.

I: There is number or anything?

J: No 

I: No

J: We just Army Air Corps

I: Okay.

J: And when I graduated from boot camp I went to ah what, Harlot – Harlingen Texas, where I was assigned to the — what was it? –164th Squadron, you know.

I: Yeah

J: Of the Army Air Corps

I: Mm-hmm. And then what happened to you?


J: What happened was more gunnery training 

I: Mm-hmm

J: And I went up to ah — what was it? — Fort Hood, which is an army base, for more gunnery training.

I: Mm-hmm

J: And I graduated and when I graduated from army gunnery I was transferred to the ah 64th Bomb Squadron of the Air Force assigned to — ah, what was the name of that place?– it was a base in England, ah, RAF, RAF Station Sculthorpe.

I: And then?

J: Well, here I was. I was assigned to an aircraft.


I: Mm-hmm

J: And got acquainted with the pilot and the co-pilot and so on and on then we started flying missions.

I: What was the aircraft?

J: It was a B-45

I: B-45

J: Tornado. 


I: Alright. So what happened to you after that?

J: I was the tail gunner in that aircraft. 

I: Mm-hmm.

J: Which was the only gunnery position there was on the aircraft

I: Right

J: Because it was a jet. No easy Bradley. Oh God. And we did a little bit of training, you know, particularly low-level gunnery and then ah we got assigned to do missions, you know, during the Korean War.

I: Mm-hmm.

J: We were doing a lot of low-level gunnery, initially, and then as the MiGs got introduced, ah we climbed at altitude and started doing our bombing from higher altitude. 


I: So when did you move to Korea?

J: We didn’t move. We stayed in England.

I: England.

J: We would fly to Korea

I: From England to Korea?

J Yeah. From England to Korea. Long flight.

I: How long?

J: Ah, several hours.

I: You’d need a lot of gasoline to fly 

J: A lot of fuel.

I: A lot of fuel but from London, directly to Korea, or go to Japan and then come to Korea?

J: We’d go to Japan first and refuel then we’d go to bomb you know in Korea.

I: When was it?

J: That was 1951, 1952, 1953. [laughter]

I: You’ve been doing for two years?

J: Three years.

I: Three years. 


J: We bombed Korea for 3 years.

I: What kind of bomb did you actually use?

J: 500 pounders.

I: 500 pounder? That’s how

J: How many could we carry? We could carry, depending upon you know the distance we were going.

I: Were you able to check to see if you’re bombing was correct or not?

J: No, there were — what do you call them? — reconnaissance flights. F-80 Shooting Stars that would go up and do a photo run and you know and take pictures to see where we had bombed to see if we hit the target and then schedule another bomb run if we missed, which happened about fifty percent of the time. [laughter]

I: So you were fifty percent correct and fifty percent wrong.

J: Wrong. Right. Not very good.

I: But you didn’t, were not able to control, right, just drop it from from the sky, right?

J: Right.

I: How high was it?

J: Well we were flying at 36,000 feet.

I: Mm-hmm

J: And just dropped the bombs and get out of there and go home, you know. Now we slowed down, you know the bomb run, or dropped altitude, then our accuracy increased, but we were also far more vulnerable to 

I: Exactly

J: Antiaircraft

I: Yep

J: To fire — attack — and the trade-off wasn’t worth it.

I: Right.

J: We lost ah four bombers. The one — the first day that they tried attacking at lower altitude, lower speed, you know, we sent one group of four aircraft up and they nailed all four with MiGs.

I: Is there a formula, how to measure the exact target from the high altitude like 36,000 feet?

J: Well you use a bomb sight, the Norden bombsight, which was designed and originally built for the Second World War. Or the B-17s. We used the same bombsight in the Korea War. It wasn’t until after the Korean War was over that we got a better bomb sight. You’d have to let the air build up under the wings in order to make the turn. It’s called air pressure.

I: Mm-hmm.

J: And we essentially had these huge wings that were thick, you know, because they were fuel tanks

I: Mm-hmm.

J: More than they were wings. Ah, they could, we could, we could actually turn a tighter turn than a MiG fighter, okay, so 

I: You mean the B-45 is better than MiG

J: In turning. Yeah.

I: Turning. MiG 19 or what?

J: MiG 15. The first one.

I: And actually MiG 15 is not bomber. Is a jet fighter. 

J: Jet fighter.

I: And it was B-45 was better than MiG 15 in turning.

J: Right.

I: I cannot believe that.



J: It’s because of the thinness of the air.

I: Hm-hmm

J: The air was thin, so we could turn and the MiG ah took 32 miles to make a 90-degree turn. We could make the same turn in 9 miles.

I: Wow.

J: So we could turn inside of the fighter by just a few miles. [laughter]

I: Just a few, but in the air with the speed of light it makes a lot of difference.

J: Yeah, it does.

I: Did you actually encounter with the North Korean MiG?

J: Oh yeah.

I: And did you have an experience shoot it down? 

J: Oh yeah.

I: Tell me about it.

J: Well, we would turn inside of ‘em, and once we turned inside, the pilot would put on the dive and figure it out. And he would put on the regular brakes and the dive brakes and slow the aircraft down, the bomber, way down. So we’d wait for the jet — the MiG — to come by, and as they’d come by we’d shoot ‘em, you know.

I: Did you actually shoot it down?

J: Oh yeah.

I: Wow.

J: I shot three of them down.

I: Three of them.

J: Yeah. 

I: Wow.

J: That’s why we were so classified. We didn’t want nobody to know what we were capable of. And it took about six months before the North Koreans figured it out. So during that six months, they lost every MiG they put up against us. I have no idea how many they lost, but they lost a few.


I: I mean why do you have to why did you have to come from England, because there were a lot of other bombers in Okinawa, and Japan?

J: Right.

I: Why did you have to come from London?

J: Because we weren’t supposed to be there. The 47th Bomb Wing was not supposed to be there.  We were supposed to be in England guarding the northern approach for, you know, A bombers, you know for the A-bombs. The nuclear bombs.

I: This is very interesting.

J: We were capable of carrying six nuclear bombs, you know, and that was our primary purpose. We were sent to England with the job that was told to the press of providing England and France, NATO, with the protection of nuclear retaliation should the Russians decide to attack, and we had nuclear bombs in England and we had a bomber that was capable of penetrating Russian airspace, oh we could penetrate about 40 to 50 miles before they’d even know we were there, and by the time they knew we were there, ah, they’d send up fighters to intercept us and we’d outrun them and go up to the Baltic and make a turn and go back to England so we [laughter]


I: What was the proposed to have a nuclear bomb in England?

J: Defense

I: For against whom? Soviet Union?

J: Yeah. 

I: Mm-hmm.

J: Defend the European Alliance. Defend England, France, Germany, and the other countries that belonged to NATO. We were the defense of NATO as it stood, period.

I: Mm-hmm.  What was your rank at the time?

J: I was a buck sergeant.

I: Buck sergeant?

J: Um-hmm. I got up to — let’s see — what rank did I reach? I reached staff sergeant.

I: I see.

J: Okay. 


I: What was your um salary at the time, as a gunner, tail gunner?

J: Uh, what was I making? About 150 dollars a month. [laughter] it wasn’t a hell of a lot. You know. 

I: So what did you do with that money?

J: I had to support a family.

I: Your family? 

J: Yeah.

I: Mm-hmm. Were you married at the time?

J: Well I was, you know, at the end. 

I: At the end.

J: At the beginning I wasn’t, it was just myself, but I sent money home to help my parents with the farm, you know. 

I: So, what were you thinking when you were bombing over Korean Peninsula? What were you thinking?
J: Well, I was hoping that we’d hit the target [laughter] you know that the bombardier would hit the target so we wouldn’t have to come back and bomb the same target the next day. 

I: Were there any dangerous moments?

J: Lots of them.

I: Tell me some of the examples. Give me some detail. 

J: When they first started using the MiG fighters and ah you know

I: When was it?

J: I think it was 1951-52? They started using the MiG fighters, now they’d come up to catch us, and initially they did catch up with a few of us and we did have to get the hell out of there. And then we didn’t go back up in that area until we figured out how to defend ourselves better and that’s how we figured out the speed and how we could use speed to outrun, you know the MiG fighter if we had to, you know, when we went back bombing, so there was a lull of about six to eight months. 


I: So you’re thinking that you’re really big part of the Korean War?

J: We were.

I: Yes.

J: We were very classified for a long time, you know.

I: So when were you discharged from the Air Force?

J: Ah, 19 – let’s see – I went in in 1951, and I got out in 1961. 

I: And did you know when the Armistice was signed in 1953? 

J: I was happy to hear that it had stopped, but I didn’t necessarily approve of it.

I: What do you mean by that?


J: Well I thought we could’ve kicked their butt if we’d kept going a little bit longer but I’m not the right person to be asking that question, you know, it’s the same as what happened in the Vietnamese War, you know? We were bombing the hell out of the North Vietnamese and all the demonstrators back in the States and started calling us baby killers and so on and so forth and so then our government negotiated a peace you know and gave the North Koreans – I mean the North Vietnamese – we gave them a victory over the South Vietnamese and in a book that came out about five years later, the head army you know general for Vietnam wrote that they were just days away from surrendering when you know the armistice was agreed upon, that we if we had continued the war for another 30 days, the North Vietnamese would’ve surrendered and given up, and the whole, you know, structure of what transpired in Vietnam, North Vietnam, and the whole region would be different today. 


I: Have you been back to Korea?

J: No.

I: Do you know what happened after the war to Korean people and Korean economy and democracy?
J: Well, democracy’s gone up, that I’m aware of. The economy skyrocketed, and they’ve built a great country with our help, America’s help. They’ve built a really strong, good defense posture and their country is thriving, that I know. 

I: So what do you think about that?
J: I think it’s great. I’m glad to have done my part. You know, at least we helped one country. [laughter] We did it right, once. 


I: Yeah. It’s a very, it’s a big success out of the Korean War, right?

J: Right. 

I: I don’t think we can find any other, better example than than the Korean War, right?

J: No, no, we can’t. I have buddies who’ve gone over there, you know, and served since I was there, ah, and they like the country, they like the people, a lot of them married Korean girls and brought them back to the State

I: Yes

J: And they make ah, they’re wonderful people.

I: Right. 

J: So I was happy, and I remain happy, that I helped to do part, I did my part to help the Korean people to gain their freedom, and I wish, only my only regret is that we didn’t stick around to do the same for the North Koreans.

I: Oh, yeah. 

J: But at least we were 50 percent successful, and we have a strong ally in the Korean people.

I: Very strong.

J: Yeah. 

I: We fought together in the Vietnam War. 

J: I know.

I: Any other story you want to tell me?

J: No. I think you got it all.

I: Any chance there was, any any time that your airplane was hit by ah anti-aircraft guns, or 

J: Oh yeah. 

I: MiG 15s?

J: Three times.

I: Tell me about it.

J: Ah, we got hit by a MiG 15, that put a lot of holes in the aircraft, and it caught fire. We had a fire in the tail, which I put out and because we either put it out or we’d crash, and I, I got burned pretty badly, and I ended up going to Wimpole Park, England eventually to get healed of my skin graphs and all so I was in Wimpole Park about 18 months. Ah

I: So you were wounded?

J: Yeah.

I: And you got Purple Heart?

J: Oh yeah.

I: How many?

J: Three.

I: Three of them. 


I: And you were scared to death. You thought you that were dying, right? No?

J: I was pretty sure of it, you know, when you feel hot lead going through your body, you’re pretty sure you’re going to die. But you do your job anyway you know, regardless of what the outcome is going to be, your job came first. Your body and your life came second. 

I: That’s very courageous. So, after you bomb, for example, one day bomb in Korea, and then, where did you go? 

J: We’d go back to England

I: Directly from there?

J: Oh no. [laughter]

I: So tell me the details of the routings.


J: The routings would usually be, ah, we’d go back to Japan.

I: Where?

J: Ah, Where was it? It was near Cambridge. 

I: Ok.

J: I can’t remember the name of the base. 

I: Was it Tokyo?

J: No, no no no. It was Korea.

I: Yeah, from Korea to Japan, where Japan?
J: Oh, Japan, we’d land at ah, what’s the name of that base, it’s right ah, close to Tokyo, can’t remember the name of the base.

I: Um-hmm. And then?

J: And then we’d ah refuel there.

I: Um-hmm.

J: They we’d change the markings on the plane because we weren’t supposed to be there.

I: What was the marking when you were in Korea?

J: Ah, it was North, or South Korean. Or English. 

I: What was the actual marking, do you remember?

J: Well, it was the insignia of the British Air Force or the Scandinavian Air Force.

I: In Korea. When you were in Korea?

J: Yeah. 

I: Over space. What was the marking? 

J: Well, it was ah, a round mark, you know, several round circles of different colors, which was the insignia of British.

I: British?

J: Air Force. You know. 

I: And then, when you go back to Japan, what do you change into?

J: We change it to U.S. markings.

I: U.S. Markings. 47th Bomb Wings. 

J: Right. We weren’t supposed to be there. I keep telling you, we were not supposed to be there.

I: It’s a very interesting story.

J: Yeah. We were under cover, so to speak.


I: How many you of actually flight back to Korea when you go there?

J: All, um, all of us would go there. 

I: All of us mean, how many craft?

J: Ah, six.

I: Six aircraft? 

J: Yeah.

I: Six B-45.

J: Right. That was a group. Six aircraft was a group. 16 aircraft to a squadron.

I: Um-hmm. How many were in squadron?

J: 16. 

I: 16.  And your

J: One.

I: One squadron? What was your unit?

J: We were one unit. We were one bomber in a squadron of 16.  

I: And what is the name of the unit that you call, it’s not squadron, it’s ah what is it?

J: Wing.

I: Wing. 


I: Very interesting story. Any other, any thoughts, or stories that you want to share with me?

J: Well.

I: Think about it. 

J: I know.

I: You know you didn’t tell me about those things, so now you’re telling me


I: and now the young children may know more about what you did.

J: Yeah, Ah.Well, we just bombed the shit out of them. Frequently. You know, towards the end of the war, we stayed in Eng, ah in Japan, in Okinawa, and you know Japan for what was it? two weeks we stayed and we bombed every day in North, North, North Korea. Yeah. We took out a lot of ships so because we weren’t ah American and we weren’t ah you know Japanese, we were 

I: British

J: British

I: Got it.

J: That were dropping the bombs so I found harbor, got pasted a few times. Oops. Big mistake. 


I: Very interesting. Thank you for sharing these stories, and your service, your honorable service, and because you did it we were able to pull this out successful economy and very substantive democracy in in Korea 

J: Right.

I: And we are the strongest ally right now between U.S. and Korea.

J: Right. 

I: So I want to thank you on behalf of Korean nation for your service.

J: Ah. I was happy to do it.

I: Alright, thank you very much.

J: You’re welcome.

[End of Recorded Material]