PORTLAND AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, Ore. --
On Monday April 25, 2016, former 123rd Fighter Squadron member Ernie Wakehouse passed away. He was 93. He died peacefully at home where he was receiving hospice care for lung cancer.
Born in 1922, Ernie was an Iowa farm boy who grew up during the Great Depression. Ernie was always interested in cars and airplanes.
Ernie enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. He went through Basic Training three times when his military records were slow to arrive. He completed his Pre-Flight courses in December 1943, having logged 10 hours of dual in a Piper Cub.
Ernie and his brother Bob, two years younger, were assigned to Class 44-J in San Antonio, Texas. They went to Missouri for Primary Flight Training in the Fairchild PT-19 trainer, then to Independence, Kansas in June 1944 for Basic Flight Training in the Vultee BT-13 “Valiant” (aka “Vibrator”) and North American BT-14 “Yale” trainers.
Ernie and Bob were next assigned to Advanced Single-Engine Flight Training, Foster Field, Victoria, Texas. Ernie was initially selected for Multi-Engine Advance Training, his commander telling him it would better prepare him for a post-war career in the airlines. Ernie convinced the Colonel that he should be sent to Single-Engine Training, wanting to stay with his brother.
During their time at Foster Field they witnessed an aerial display by Dick Bong, the Air Corps’ World War II “Ace of Aces”.
Ernie and Bob flew the North American AT-6 “Texan” advanced trainer and Curtiss P-40 fighter at Foster Field. Ernie added nearly 200 hours to his logbook. The two were awarded their pilot’s wings in December 1944.
Following leave they served at various transition bases in Georgia and Florida, flying the AT-6 trainer. Ernie met his life-long friend and future 123rd Fighter Squadron member Greg James at a basketball game in Florida in 1945.
The trio moved on to Venice, Florida, where they were in North American P-51 Mustang fighter transition training when the war ended.
Returning to Oregon at war’s end, Ernie attended Oregon State College (now University), then opened an auto repair shop in Portland, Wakehouse Motors.
During the post-WWII years Ernie joined the Oregon Air National Guard, serving in the 123rd Fighter Squadron (an original unit of the 142nd Fighter Group, now Wing), based at the Portland Airport. He flew the T-6 Texan trainer/utility, F-51 Mustang fighter, and C-47 transport. In June 1949 he was promoted to First Lieutenant, a rank he held until his separation from the Air Force.
Following the start of the Korean War in June 1950 Ernie flew a Mustang to Naval Air Station Alameda, near San Francisco, California. He was confused to be flying an Air Force aircraft to a Navy airfield. He learned that his plane was one of 145 Mustangs loaded onto the aircraft carrier USS Boxer for transport to South Korea, to be used by U.S. and Allied forces in the ground attack role against North Korea.
In February 1951 Ernie was recalled to active duty with the U.S. Air Force. In May of that year Ernie and his friend Greg James, whom Ernie had prompted to join the 123rd, flew a pair of Mustangs to Luke Air Force Base (AFB) in Arizona for Fighter Combat Training.
On August 6, 1951 Ernie was “dogfighting” with another Mustang piloted by future Brigadier General Bob Titus west of Luke AFB, Arizona. At 7,000 feet the Mustang’s engine quit. Ernie elected to save the airplane by landing “dead stick” (without engine power) at an auxiliary field. As he waited on the ground for the engine fire to be extinguished he saw Titus fly overhead and drop a note. The note stated: “I’m sorry Ernie, I didn’t know the guns were loaded!” Ernie and Titus were life-long friends. [Note: Titus flew 101 combat missions in the F-51 during the Korean War and 400 in the F-4 Phantom during the Vietnam War, downing 3 MiG-21s.]
The Air Force chose to deploy F-51 pilots from Air National Guard units around the U.S. to fly Mustangs in Korea. In September 1951 Ernie was one of the nine pilots from the 123rd FS ordered to Korea. He flew his first orientation flight from K-10 airbase at Chinhae, South Korea. Moving to K-16 airbase, Seoul City Airport, he flew his first combat mission on September 12, 1951, in which he flew in the number four position of four aircraft, his friend Greg James being one of the other Mustang pilots in “Willie” flight that day.
Ernie was now a member of the 39th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron, 18th Fighter Bomber Wing (FBW), Fifth Air Force. The Air Force had pulled Mustangs from the U.S. and the Philippines for the job in Korea. Ernie found dirty (muddy wings, exhaust streaks on fuselage sides, streaks on wings from machine gun firing), but mechanically sound, Mustangs based there.
The 18th FBW was composed of four squadrons: 12th Fighter-Bomber Squadron (“Foxy Few”), 39th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron (“Cobra in the Clouds”/”Fighting 39th”), 67th Fighter-Bomber Squadron (“Fighting Cocks”), and No. 2 Squadron (“Flying Cheetahs”), South African Air Force (SAAF). All flew the North American F-51D Mustang (the South Africans transitioned to the U.S.-supplied Mustangs from their British-built aircraft).
Many of the pilots sent to Korea were WWII veterans with only multi-engine combat experience. Their transition to Mustang combat tactics, especially ground attack, sometimes came at a cost to those inexperienced pilots. One South African pilot, a four-engine flying boat pilot before the war, crashed a fully combat-loaded Mustang into parked Mustangs when he failed to apply right rudder to compensate for the right-turning propeller on the American-engined Mustang.
Ernie credited the Mustang maintenance crews with doing a great job keeping the aircraft flyable. Most were WWII veterans, and they took good care of their charges.
Ernie flew half of his missions from K-16 air base, the other half from K-46 air base, fifty miles east of Seoul.
Fifty percent of his missions were flown to targets north of Pyongyang, North Korea, up to the Yalu River, the border between China and North Korea. A single “flight” of four aircraft (two “elements” of two aircraft each) participated in a close air support mission. Twenty-four aircraft flew on “bridge busting” missions, with one flight circling over-head as Combat Air Patrol (CAP). Ernie flew on one five-and-a-half hour MiG CAP mission over a downed B-29 bomber north of Pyongyang. His flight circled overhead at 2,000 feet to provide protection from enemy ground forces and aircraft until Air-Sea Rescue could arrive and pick up the B-29 crew.
Ernie was nearly shot down by a Mig-15 on one mission. On another his flight leader led the aircraft into a box canyon, then back out, with horizontal enemy tracer fire aimed at them.
Near the end of his tour Ernie became a flight leader. He often checked out new flight leaders, many of them regular Air Force officers.
At the forward air bases (K-16, K-46) the pilots slept in tents. At K-10, the maintenance base, there were Quonset-type huts for accommodations for pilots.
Ernie flew his final combat mission in Korea on 16 December 1951. He had flow 100 missions in the F-51 Mustang in ninety days. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and several Air Medals for his service there. His total flight time in the Mustang amounted to approximately 600 hours. He logged night, combat, instrument time.
He separated from the Air National Guard in July 1952, preferring to return to the automobile business.
Ernie owned Wakehouse Motors, a successful Portland car dealership, for forty years. He sold import cars (Fiat, Lancia, Triumph, MG, Saab) and recreational vehicles.
Following retirement Ernie often attended meetings and reunions of the American Fighter Aces. Though not an ace himself he was a guest of WWII Mustang ace Clayton Kelly Gross. He met most of the famous WWII American, British, and German aces. He was also a featured speaker at “The Gathering of P-51 Mustangs and Legends” in 2007.
Ernie’s airplanes included a Beechcraft 35-B33 Debonair, a Beechcraft S35 Bonanza, and a Learjet 24B.
Ernie was very proud of his aviation group memberships in Columbia Aviation Association and the Quiet Birdmen, and his many friends there. He was also proud of his military service and the recognition afforded him by 142nd Wing officers such as Colonel Mike Bieniewicz.
Ernie was truly a proud American.
Ernie is buried next to his bride, June, at Skyline Memorial Gardens in Portland, Oregon.