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The Amazing Mr. Death

The following excerpt is from the book “52-Charlie: Members of a Legendary Pilot Training Class Share Their Stories about Combat in Korea and Vietnam.” It is published with the permission of the author, Edward T. Gushee.


Color Blind

[Roy] Black’s ticket to the rest of the world was the United States Air Force. He applied for aviation cadets and was accepted. He completed his basic training at Columbus AFB and his advanced training in jets at Williams. He received his wings and after a stint at Luke, Black was given orders to report to K-2 in Taegu.

Black thought this was all fun and games. Each mission he flew was a walk in the park. He dropped his bombs; he fired his guns, and reported early for cocktails at the officers’ club.

Shortly after Black arrived at K-2, Major John Whitehead was assigned to his squadron as the operations officer. He immediately named Black the assistant OPS officer. The major had flown in World War II. He had been a member of one of the most illustrious airman units to come out of that war. John Whitehead was a Tuskegee airman and he was the only black pilot at K-2, Little old southern boy, Roy Black, reported to John Whitehead, and while some might have thought there would be friction between the two men, there was none. In fact, the two pilots became fast friends.

Black addressed his friend not as Major or Sir, but as “Whitey,” and John in turn called his new friend “Blackie.” And it was always accompanied by a smile.

On April 13, 1953, the two men were scheduled to fly a four-plane formation against some marshalling yards near Wonsan, about seventy-five miles north of the DMZ (demilitarized zone).

Blackie carried two five-hundred-pound bombs, eight 4.5 rockets, and 1800 rounds of 50-caliber machine-gun bullets.

The other three pilots in the complement carried the same.

They dropped their bombs, fired their rockets, and shot every bullet they had at the train tracks. As they completed their low-level mission, every pilot in the group was hit by ground fire. John Whitehead was in serious trouble. His 84 caught fire. The fuselage, the cockpit, even the tail assembly were ablaze. Fire trailed 100 feet behind his plane.

Blackie screamed at his friend, “Whitey, get the hell out! Get out!”

But Whitey was too low. Every warning light in the cockpit flashed as the major twisted his aircraft trying to reach altitude. Whitey snap-rolled the plane and as he did, the fire blew out. The fire had been so hot that all the markings on the aircraft had burned off.

Blackie led the major to K-18, which was the nearest base. “Mayday! Mayday! I need some help here,” Blackie yelled.

The tower cleared the formation to land on runway 090. Whitey struggled to line his aircraft up and as he did, the tower changed the direction 180 degrees to runway 270. A completely new approach was required.

The major had no hydraulics; he couldn’t get his gear down, nor his flaps, which meant he would have to belly his plane at an airspeed exceeding 200 mph on a very short runway. The prospect was not good.

Whitey lowered the plane’s nose, aimed for the runway, and when he touched down, his plane caught fire once again. It flipped and headed backwards down the runway, flames spreading out in front of him. Parts of his aircraft littered the runway. Along the side of the runway were large mounds of sand. Whitey’s plane plowed into one of the dunes and scattered sand as far as the eye could see. But fortunately the sand put out the fire. These were the same sand dunes that had claimed Reider’s T-6.

Black landed with his wingmen. They all did their best to avoid the large chunks of Whitey’s aircraft that were strewn along the runway. Black pulled off the runway and watched as Whitey opened the canopy of a plane that virtually had vaporized and climbed calmly down. The major was dazed but not hurt or burned.

The medical helicopter landed and the doctor brought his bag over to the four pilots. He opened it, pulled out a bottle of whiskey, and gave eight ounces to each pilot. All four F-84s were class 26; that is, they were destined for the scrap heap. America lost four aircraft that day, but Roy Black swears they blew the living hell out of a marshalling yard.

Blackie flew an additional twenty missions and when his tour was over, he resigned his commission and returned to Georgia where he entered the construction business. John Whitehead, who had been raised in Dublin, Georgia, less than a hundred miles from where Blackie was born, stayed in the Air Force as a career officer.

In the years that followed, Blackie would call his friend from time to time. I expect the conversation might have gone something like this:


“Hey, Whitey, what’s up?’

“That you, Blackie?”

“You bet your black ass it is, Whitey!’

It’s extraordinary how many wonderful friends you can make if you are colorblind.


John L. Whitehead, Jr. went on to become the first African American pilot to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Experimental Test Pilots School, the first African American instructor of jet pilots, and the first African American pilot to fly the B-47 jet bomber.


LT John L. Whitehead


His award includes the Distinguished Flying Cross with three oak leaf clusters, Air Medal with seven oak leaf clusters, Army Commendation Medal and Air Force Commendation Medal.

While stationed in Italy, his operations officer nicknamed him “Mr. Death,” because of his slender frame. Whitehead liked the name so much he had it painted on his plane, a P-51 Mustang.

Mr. Death flew in three wars; World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. He retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel; amassing 9,500 hours of flight time, with more than 5,000 hours in jets. He flew over 40 different types of airplanes. Whitehead died in Sacramento, California.


Whitehead served as a California State Park Commissioner from August 1984 to January 1992. The John L. Whitehead, Jr. Campground at Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park is dedicated to his memory. Also, one of the meeting rooms at the DPR’s William Penn Mott, Jr. Training Center at the Asilomar Conference Grounds is named in his honor.

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