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801st MAES first to receive Distinguished Unit Award in 1950

  • Published
  • By Howard Halvorsen
  • 59 Medical Wing Historian
It's a little-known fact the first Air Force Distinguished Unit Award ever awarded was presented to men and women serving in a medical unit.

The 801st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron received the citation for gallantry and heroism during events that unfolded in September and December 1950. To fully understand why their accomplishments rose to the level of such an honor, it's important to understand the situation they were flying into.

Called "the Forgotten War" for good reason, the Korean War started at 4 a.m. on a rainy Sunday, June 25, 1950, when the Democratic People's Republic Army, the Immun Gun, caught the Republic of Korea and the world completely by surprise. Led by U.S. Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the United Nations rushed troops into the fray to halt the invasion and aid the South Koreans.

By September 1950, both sides were exhausted when the lines settled at the Pusan Perimeter. Just as the North Koreans pushed for a last breakthrough, MacArthur sent a combined force consisting of U.S. Marines, Soldiers, and 8,600 ROK Army troops on an ambitious amphibious landing at Inchon on Sept. 15, 1950, after which the North Korean Army Pusan attack collapsed and fled back north. Combined allied forces secured Seoul by Sept. 25, 1950, and the Republic of Korea government was restored on Sept. 29, 1950.

American air raids caused heavy damage to the North Korean People's Army, destroying most of its tanks and much of its artillery. North Korean troops in the south, instead of effectively withdrawing north, rapidly disintegrated, leaving the DPRK capitol Pyongyang vulnerable. Complete victory had not been achieved, but the fortunes of war had reversed.

As U.N. forces pursued the fleeing Immun Gun, MacArthur was authorized by U.S. President Harry S. Truman to go north of the 38th Parallel, the latitudinal line that by war's end would approximate the boundary between North Korea and South Korea. U.S. forces were watching for indications the Soviets or Chinese might enter the war.

The "police action" was on the verge of ending as UN forces merely had to mop up remnants of the NKPA forces. America thought the communist Chinese would stay out of the conflict, but the Chinese thought otherwise.

After moving north of the 38th Parallel in the "Home by Christmas Offensive, American and allied forces, and their command structure, were divided by the Nangnim Mountains. Geography dictated the division of U.N. ground troops for what was thought to be the final march of the war.

Dismissing the discovery of some Chinese in Korea, the widespread dispersal of X Corps in difficult terrain led to its defeat, which included the destruction of Task Force Faith and the narrow escape of the more organized Marines at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.

U.S. leadership was slow to recognize the scale of the Chinese People's Liberation Army attack on X Corps. U.S. forces move forward despite warnings in intelligence reports. Approximately 120,000 seasoned Chinese troops, battle hardened from the long Chinese Civil War, awaited a spread-out force of 15,000 U.S. troops. When the order finally came to withdraw, it was too late to save Task Force Faith.

This catastrophe led to direct intervention by the Far East Air Forces' Combat Cargo Command and its attached air evacuation crews.

In the early months of the Korean War, the Army and Marines relied on rail and sea evacuation for transporting casualties and supplies. For U.S. forces facing a superior number of enemy troops in difficult terrain, air support became indispensable.

Airlift was practically the only way to resupply the troops and move the wounded. C-119s and C-47s from the Far East Air Forces' Combat Cargo Command airdropped and landed some 1,580 tons of equipment and supplies, including eight bridge spans, which would allow a withdrawal to the sea.

Two weeks after the Chinese PLA attacks began, C-47s evacuated about 5,000 sick and wounded Soldiers and Marines from inhospitable places like Hagaru-ri and Koto-ri.
The war confirmed that aeromedical evacuation, which proved valuable in World War II, was ideal for the medical transport of American casualties.

The Air Force's 801st MAES received its Distinguished Unit Citation for actions at Inchon and for the evacuation of close to 4,700 casualties from the Chosin Reservoir. Nearly 4,000 of those casualties were transported in a single day on Dec. 5, 1950.

The 801st MAES helped the embattled 1st Marine Division at Chosin Reservoir make a successful withdrawal while fighting its way to the port of Hungnam on the northeast coast of Korea. The 801st MAES operated from austere and ill-prepared airstrips located in areas surrounded by enemy troops who subjected the aircraft to hostile fire on the ground as well as in the air.

As the conflict dragged on, the unit continued to fly supply and aeromedical evacuation missions throughout Korea and Japan. Saving countless lives, the men and women of the 801st MAES distinguished themselves as the first to earn the Air Force Distinguished Unit Award.