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John Kriz: Korean War Typhoon Chaser

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John Kriz, center, on Momote with some natives.

John Kriz served in the Air Force prior to and during the Korean War, volunteering for a duty most people would flatly refuse: typhoon tracker. John and his crewmates chased typhoons around the Pacific, actually flying into the center of storms to collect their data. “[O]nce you got into the center … you could see the clouds funneling in all around you; it was really something. They would tell us to put on our life jackets, but they wouldn’t do any good if you crashed in something like that. The first time I was a little jittery about it, but back then you were young, that was a job, you were getting paid extra so what the heck, nothing ever happens to you, it’s the other guy and that’s the way it worked, nothing happened to me.”  Interview: April 25, 2012. Springill, Erie, Pa.

I was stationed in Guam in late 1948. I went through radio operator mechanics school down in Keesler Air Force Base in Mississippi and after that they took me over to the Pacific. I was from Eastern Pennsylvania; it’s a little mining town where they mined anthracite which is a little different. Most little mining towns are coal, but this is hard coal. All our houses were heated by coal; somebody come in with a gas stove and they would be shoved out of town. My Dad was a coal miner, and he told me you are not going to work in the mines. Everybody that worked in the mines eventually died of black lung disease. There was one little town around where I lived; they tore it down because a mine fire started underground and they couldn’t put it out – Centralia, Pa. It was a historic site; you could go through the area and see the smoke coming out.

I graduated from high school when I was 16 and I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, so I figured when I was 17 I was able to go into the service and I figured I would sign up and maybe I would decide while I was in there. I think it was a good choice because I became a little bit more mature and decided I wanted to be a game warden. I was in for three years, nine months and 11 days. I know because I enlisted for three years, and once the war started Harry Truman decided he wanted it to be longer. But because of the war I was able to get the GI bill and it helped me in my life. I went to Penn State to get a degree in Forestry and while I was getting my degree I decided, well, I’d like to get into Wildlife Management, and I got to know some of the professors and worked with them and I was able to get a master’s degree in Wildlife Management and Forestry.

I was pretty young in the service, 17 or 18. My Mom didn’t want me to go of course, but I went anyway. You figure everything is fine because the war is over, but when I got over there the war started again, the Korean War started. At the time I was working as a ground radio operator over there. We communicated with planes.

When the war started, they asked for volunteers to fly. Well, it was extra pay, so I volunteered and they made me a flight radio operator and I got to fly in a B-29. I was in the weather squadron, weather reconnaissance. We were the typhoon chasers in the Pacific, like the hurricane hunters in the Atlantic. Most of the time it is pretty stormy as you are going into it; it’s just like going through a real bad rain storm with lots of wind and of course the typhoon circles around counter-clockwise and there is an eye in the middle which is calm. What we used to do is penetrate the typhoon into the eye. You had to do that to get information on where the storm was going, how fast it was, if it was getting stronger or weaker and to warn people in its path.

Actually sometimes we were flying backwards. We would fly in about 140 kilometers per hour and sometimes the winds were exceeding 140 kilometers, so in theory we were flying backwards or standing still. But once you got into the center, the eye, it was nice, you could see the clouds funneling in all around you; it was really something. Most of the time it was like a mile in diameter and you could fly around in it pretty easily and they would drop a weather instrument and my job would be to record what that was sending back to us and then send it into the ground station.

A few times we aborted the mission because it just got too rough. Occasionally, lightning would hit it and you would see just a white flash, but we were grounded. They would tell us to put on our life jackets, but they wouldn’t do any good if you crashed in something like that. The first time I was a little jittery about it, but back then you were young, that was a job, you were getting paid extra so what the heck, nothing ever happens to you, it’s the other guy and that’s the way it worked, nothing happened to me.

We were working a lot, so we didn’t spend too much time sightseeing, although I do remember going out onto the beach a lot, swimming with the coral. Once the war started they issued us weapons, and I don’t know why, but anyways the air crew we were the hot shots, we were issued automatics, 45s and so we would carry them like cowboys, 18- 19-year-old kids. There wasn’t much to do, write letters. We went to the movie theatre there; it was outdoors because everything was outdoors. I remember we had a couple pets, dogs that would come around and we laid around with those things, but it was just mostly looking forward to our next flight and doing our job.

Depending on where a storm was going to go we flew into a lot of different bases, a lot up in Okinawa, Kadena Air Force Base and you got Yokota Air Force Base in Japan; we flew up there and out of there a lot and Clark Field in the Philippines. Most of the time they were close to 16 hours and it was just a circle. We would take off from Guam, make a great big circle for 16 hours and I mean it was a quarter of the Pacific, and come back to our home base. There were two radio operators and we would work a shift, actually we were off and on 8 hours. When we weren’t working we were sitting in what we called the scanner seat. These B-29s were modified and the scanner seat was where the gunners would normally sit, but they didn’t have the guns. I sat on the right side and watched engines three and four all the time and the pilot would call in every half hour or so and ask what the engines looked like. There were always oil leaks. I don’t think they flew right unless there was an oil leak. (Laughs.)

One time we lost an engine for some reason or other and they were feathering it – the B-29 flew good on three engines, but one time we lost two engines and that was when things got hairy. We were down near New Guinea, and luckily there was an Australian emergency base down there and we flew in there. Momote. That was the name of the place. When we landed, well, the natives there were pretty native. It was right on the equator and it was very warm there and the people didn’t wear very many clothes if you know what I mean. I have a bunch of pictures of me with the natives standing around me. Back then it was something.

The natives lived pretty crudely; they had just shacks. They always seemed like they were smoking cigarettes. That’s one thing I never got into; I never took a puff of a cigarette in my life. In the service, well, you go out and stand right for inspection and the first thing they say, “At ease, smoke if you got them.”

They didn’t have any drinking water. Well, I guess they tried to purify it, but it tasted terrible, so all we had to drink was Australian beer, so it was rough. (Laughs.) In fact, I think we were pretty well inebriated by the time they flew a couple engines down in a C-54 to repair the plane. I remember Australian beer was pretty good. The people at the base were nice. One of them gave me a souvenir; I have it right here called a puck puck. (Holds out a small, wooden alligator.) I gave him a dollar and I don’t know what he did with it, but he gave me that and Andy, the radio operator, gave me his hat. I still have it.


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