“Alone! Unarmed! Unafraid?” was the slogan of a small group of men who were selected to fly top-secret reconnaissance missions over North Korea, China and Russia during the Korean War. The slogan came about/arose because these men flew alone in single-seat fighter planes equipped with cameras instead of guns, which left them unarmed. Whether they were afraid or not, depended on the scenarios they faced during each mission. Walt McCarthy, a resident of La Posada senior living community in Palm Beach Gardens, flew on six of these top-secret missions. He wanted to become a pilot starting at a young age, so he signed up for the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) in 1947 and was called to active duty on June 26, 1951 when he was 22 years old. While the Korean War is sometimes referred to as “The Forgotten War,” McCarthy and his fellow veterans are not forgotten and were recently honored at a Veterans Day celebration at at La Posada on November 11. The community recognized every veteran regardless of whether they served during a period of war. McCarthy is open to sharing his memories of his service, some of which touch on recently declassified missions.
“After flying school I went to Korea and became a flight commander and trained seven or eight other pilots,” said McCarthy. “I flew F-80s, the original jet fighter, and later flew F-86s. I flew several training missions in the F-80s and was ordered to Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas to check out in the F-86s. I was stationed in Japan after that training and was assigned to become the squadron intelligence officer and lead top-secret mission. During these top-secret missions, I felt like we were breaking every treaty we had ever made.”
McCarthy was stationed in Japan when he was instructed to go with his wingman, Nick, to patrol the Kuril Islands and take pictures of submarine pens, as the Navy was interested in obtaining that intelligence. The photos were then developed at a secret lab in Tokyo. One day, McCarthy and Nick were called to the lab. The two thought they were in trouble, however, the developer stopped the film and showed them a picture of two Russian MiG fighter jets which had been right below them and they had no idea.
“On another mission, we were staging out of Korea,” said McCarthy. “I was flying over the ocean as a decoy so Nick could fly over the center of North Korea. I happened to glance down and saw two MiGs turning into me. Since I was unarmed, I got out of there as fast as I could. That was easily the most dramatic mission for me, seeing as we didn’t even have guns in our planes to defend ourselves. We only had cameras with 200 feet of nine-inch wide film.”
McCarthy married Joy Bragg during his service and even brought a little girl into the world while living in Japan. The couple jokes that she is their Japanese daughter. This was their second child, as they had a son in Texas. McCarthy recalls that it wasn’t easy being a service wife and trying to raise a family while he was completing missions, but she stayed strong. McCarthy would have a bag packed and ready to go because they didn’t know when they would be called for a mission. They would then take off immediately and couldn’t give their wives any details because their missions were top secret. When people asked his wife if she worried about him a lot, she replied no because if he was dead the chaplain would be at their house by then. He loved her support and is grateful for his experience. Veterans Day is significant to McCarthy because he believes all veterans deserve recognition. His time spent serving his country was very important to him, and he likes to think of other people growing and making something of their service like he did.
“My life was enriched by my time spent in the service,” said McCarthy. “It helped me grow up and forced me to take on responsibilities I never would have dreamed of handling. I wasn’t the most charismatic leader, but I think my men respected me because I used common sense. This experience helped me build confidence which I later used to pursue a career at Pratt and Whitney, a company that builds aircraft engines. In two years I was promoted to supervisor, and I spent 35 years working with that company. My service gave me the confidence to do well in my role.”
“There are many veterans and spouses of veterans who live in our community, and we feel honored when we hear about their experiences,” said Cadiere. “It is a real privilege to listen to their stories, and it helps us understand what they have witnessed over the years. We were pleased to host a ceremony to celebrate all of the veterans who live or work at our community. This celebration was a way to honor their sacrifice and the sacrifices made by fellow veterans and their spouses. Their service, whether it was a few years ago or a few decades ago, impacts us greatly by ensuring that we have the freedom we know and love. The least we can do is host an event to pay homage to the sacrifices they made.”