The Cottonpickers



Ruffin W. Gray, Colonel, USAF (Ret)
Commander, 15th TRS -- Oct. ‘51 - May ‘52

In June 1951, the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (Photo Jet) was flying off the hot, dusty PSP strip at K-2, Korea. When the North Koreans invaded, the squadron had been the 8th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) at Yokota, Japan and commanded by Lt. Col. Jake Dixon. The 8th TRS began flying missions out of Itazuke the first day of the invasion and had moved up and down the Korean peninsula as the war progressed. The 8th has been officially credited with originating the motto "Every Man A Tiger", and the motto was carried over to the 15th TRS.

The 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW) was subsequently formed, and the 8th TRS was re-designated as the 15th TRS. The other squadrons in the wing were the 45th TRS with RF-51s and the 12th TRS with RB-26s. The wing was commanded by the renowned Col. Karl "Pop" Polifka who had gained well-deserved recognition in WW II as commander of recon units in the SWPA, African and European theaters. Col. Dixon was the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Group commander at K-2 airfield in Taegu.

The 15th TRS was equipped with about 24 old RF-80s. The tail numbers all began with "45" which gives you a
clue as to how old they were. The old engine put out about 3500 pounds thrust which had to be augmented with a water/alcohol tank for take-off. The birds were so old that they had a manual starting system, a manual canopy, and a hard seat - no ejection, just climb over the side.

RF-80 Lands at Kimpo Airfield

In early June ‘51, two young junior captains reported to the squadron on the same day - Capt. Harry Morris, an Air National Guard (ANG) pilot from Birmingham who had volunteered for active duty to do his part (Harry was one of the finest pilots and best officers I have ever known. He volunteered for active duty, came to Korea, flew his 100 missions, went home and reverted to ANG status).

I had spent the last 11 months shuffling papers in the personnel shop of 13th AF Headquarters at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, and volunteering for every flying assignment in Korea that came through. On a TDY to Korea, I told "Pop" Polifka my tale of woe, and he got me released from 13th AF.

Major Clyde B. EastThe squadron was commanded by Major Clyde B. East who had become an ace in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) while flying RF-51’s in the Second World War. Clyde had so many Air Medals that the Air Force had authorized him to wear two ribbons since he couldn’t get all his clusters on one ribbon. He shot down 11 aircraft and had been threatened with court martial if he shot down another German while flying a recce mission.

Major Exum F. BullardHe had to wait to claim his last two victories until the AF commander rotated to avoid court martial. Capt. Exum F. Bullard was squadron Operations Officer.

When Harry Morris and I joined the squadron, the pilots included some of the original cadre from Japan and about half new replacements; mostly young Lts. Lt. Bryce Poe had flown a tour with the 15th TRS, and he ended up as a four-star and commander of Air Logistics Command. Harry and I were surprised that the squadron was sorely lacking in lots of amenities such as intelligence and briefing boards and no pilot facilities - not even a coffeepot in Operations. We decided to do something about it.

We quickly learned that a T-33 ride over the front lines could open lots of supply lines. After giving the Company Commander and Operations Officer of a nearby Army Engineering Company a T-33 ride, we soon had a 6x6 unloading a load of plywood and 2x4s at the squadron area.

The Pilot's Lounge - Taegu

All the pilots pitched in constructing a pilots lounge adjacent to operations. The Photo Joes found out they could cut a double miter joint with a hand saw to build a frame for a GI tent. With some parachute silk for the ceiling, woven grass mats for wall covering, and other innovations, the old CI tent took on a classy look. Squadron "Scroungers" found ways to open up supply lines for beer and cokes, and we soon had a pilots lounge equipped with dart boards, poker and card tables, a bar and other amenities.

The 15th TRS pilot lounge soon became the orbit point for all pilot activities - letter writing while waiting for missions, card and dart games, reading, poker sessions, and sites for 100 missions parties, birthdays, promotions, etc., etc. As activities increased, some club rules emerged. Someone had turned up with an old fashioned, hard black bowler hat - which became the symbol to identify the pilot serving as bartender that night. It was also decreed that all pilots of the flight scheduled for the next day?s early missions would leave the club at 2200, and retire for the evening.

The flight commander of "D" flight was a great guy from Augusta, Georgia whos favorite expression in an aggravated southern drawl was, "Come on, you Cottonpickers, lets go". For some unknown reason, Rich had been tabbed with the nickname "Shaky Leader" - not used in a derogatory manner. So every time Rich's flight was scheduled for the early missions, he'd stand up in the club at 2200 and announce in a loud voice, "Okay all you Cottonpickers, lets go". At some point, the question arose on a name for the club and someone suggested "Cottonpickers" and it stuck.

Captain Richard Stearns

In late August or early September 1951, the wing moved to Kimpo, K-14. Clyde East and Exum Bullard rotated to the states, and Major Bruce B. Fish became Major B.B. Fishsquadron commander and Captain Joe Daly Operations Officer.

On arrival at Kimpo, the squadron constructed another "Cottonpickers" club - this time in two Jamesway huts immediately behind the Operations Quonset hut.

Colonel Edwin S. Chickering came over as Wing Commander with Colonel Bert Smiley serving as his deputy. Colonel Charles C. Andrews arrived as Tactical Group commander.

Col. Chickering, Maj. Gray and Col Andrews

We checked Colonel "Chick" and "Andy" out in the RF-80, and they became ardent supporters of the Cottonpickers club.

The 4th Fighter Wing (the only F-86 equipped wing in Korea at that time) was on the north side of Kimpo, and the 67th Wing occupied the south side along with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) squadron of Meteors, commanded by Wing Commander Ron Susans. Ron later became an Air Commodore and chief of the RAAF. The 15th Squadron and the Aussies soon became an almost combined squadron, and the Aussies were in the Cottonpickers club nightly.

Major Fish appointed me Squadron Exec; and after 30 days, I got a spot promotion to Major. B. B. was then pulled up as Group Exec, and I was designated Squadron Commander.

Lieutenant General Frank Everest was 5th Air Force (FEAF) Commander who came out to Kimpo from time to time. On his first visit, Colonel "Chick" brought him down to the squadron and into the Cottonpickers for a beer. Behind the bar, we had built mug racks to hold the squadron beer mugs. At the top of the rack was a single slot with a big wheel underneath and a mug inscribed "Hank" for Gen. Everest. Underneath his mug were three slots with a smaller wheel and mugs inscribed "Chick", "Bert", and "Andy" for the wing CO, deputy and group Co. Underneath these three was a slot with a little small wheel, and my mug "Ruff".

General Everest immediately became a supporter of the Cottonpickers announcing that it was the only bar in the world where he had his own mug. From then on at the monthly 5th AF wing commanders conference, he would call on Colonel Chickering first with the remark, "Well Chick, what’s going on at the Cottonpickers?"

As time went on, squadron lounges such as the Cottonpickers sprang up all over Korea. At one Wing Commanders conference, some bean counter from the Comptroller shop announced that the squadron clubs would have to be closed since they were generating a certain amount of money without proper controls and accounting procedures. Gen. Everest stated that such a decision, if carried out, would not apply to the Cottonpickers.

This is a long-winded dissertation to explain the derivation of the name "Cottonpickers" but it is the way it happened.


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