REGINALD C. EARP-JONES
Flight Lieutenant | Royal Rhodesian Air Force
In block capitals on the dotted line, Rex signed his Form of Undertaking as a volunteer to serve with the South African Air Force against North Korea or any other forces which opposed the United Nations. In additional paperwork he noted his next of kin in the event he became a casualty, but to a mean as fearless and cheerful as Rex the words on the page held little weight towards what may actually happen to him once he entered hostile skies.
His girlfriend Daphne was of course sad about his departure, but with how much Rex was looking forward to the experience she could only let him have his way. Niether had any idea just how long his tour would be when he left the Union in December 1951.
Twenty minutes after the attack on a railway objective – his eighteenth mission flying No. 4 – Rex dropped low to count the bombs that hit the target when he felt the engine of his P-51 suddenly cut out. He had not been hit by anti-aircraft – his engine just died mysteriously. He was left two choices: to force land in the snow or bail out by parachute. A forced landing was risky and in unknown territory, bad luck. That left Rex with one option.
“My engine’s quit, I’m bailing out!” he radioed without time to spare and immediately unplugged to prepare ejecting. These were the last words his flight mates heard from him for over eighteen months. At the altitude he was flying there was little time to delay, for even at 13,000 feet the earth came quickly. In moments he had dropped to eight or nine thousand feet when the canopy opened and his parachute streamed out and billowed as it caught the air and Rex’s plummet toward the earth jerked back into a gentle descent. The Mustang continued on its course and exploded against a hill as Rex drifted calmly toward the snowy ground and tumbled into a gully in the forest. He collected himself and on looking up at the tree line to find that he was surrounded by a party of Chinese. It appeared the railway target they were bombing was a headquarters for a division of Chinese troops. His tour in Korea appeared as though it would last much longer than he anticipated.
Rex’s own thoughts surprised him in the moment of his capture, for previously he had, for the sake of adventure, wished that the war did not end rapidly so the pilots could have some more fun. Upon being met by his captors, he quickly changed his thoughts and hoped immediately for peace.
Uninjured from his landing, the only discomfort Rex came to experience during his marching around with the Chinese was by the tips of their bayonets as they encouraged him to move. If he was not walking quickly enough for their satisfaction, a gentle poke kept him moving.
They stopped for a rest at a Korean hut, inhabited by a farmer, his wife and infant child who was upset and crying. Two guards reserved for Rex indicated that he lie down. As he was pressed against the mud floor, Rex saw among the few possessions remaining in the shell blasted home was the farmers scythe hung on the wall. The farmer, pacing and muttering against the noise of his child, suddenly leapt for the scythe and came at Rex, who deftly rolled away and looked back to see the blade plunged into the floor where he just was. A second time he narrowly evaded death or mortal injury. The farmer, angrily pointing at bullet holes in the wall, conveyed that he was blaming Rex for the damage to his home.
Over the coming months, Rex and his fellow captives lived the lives of liars as they told their interrogators as much rubbish as they could concoct. For many hours they would force Rex to remain standing and in poor English, inquire about anything from politics to junior schooling and the breadth of topics afforded Rex plenty of chances to create elaborate lies. There were frequent consequences for their false tales and weeks or months later their captors would return having discovered that the prisoners’ stories were fake, but Rex would simply start all over again with a creative new version of the story. Occasionally he would end up locked up for his misbehavior.
Frequent punishment revolved around Rex’s wristwatch, which the Chinese had confiscated from him after his capture. It had stopped working when he bailed and became a bit of a joke that he wanted it returned so badly. Whether it functioned or not made no difference as it was something to fight with his captors about, particularly during indoctrination courses when it was a great subject to use for an argument and upset their program.
On the wall where these courses were held was a poster of Mao Tse Tung which one daring prisoner smeared mud across one day. Though the Chinese came down hard seeking the culprit, Rex and the prisoners found it most amusing and composed a ditty: Who flung dung on Mao Tse Tung? Years after the war, he still found it amusing.
Food became the most important aspect of life. From three meals per day as an SAAF pilot, Rex was suddenly down to one meal per day consisting of only rice and once or twice a week a soup that consisted of water and some boiled pork. As a result of the poor diet, he soon had diarrhea and only a dose of medicine of unknown origin – other than it was Russian – cured his suffering.
The room in which Rex was housed was once a school house where he and about thirty other prisoners slept on the ground, each with a single blanket. Chris Lombard was an earlier prisoner from the South African squadron that Rex met up with and they became quite friendly. Both grew beards during the winter months, which Rex found extremely cold, and on one occasion the two pilots woke to find that their breath had crystalized on their beards. Since the men were packed so closely in the school house, when they woke that morning they found they were fused together by their frozen facial hair and it took some effort to break free from each other. Together, the two carved wood chess set, created card games using newspaper torn from the wall, and otherwise passed time chatting with each other throughout the day and into the night after lights out – though there was no electricity in the schoolhouse anyway.
For the first year in captivity, Rex had no communication with his parents or Daphne, and it was only in 1953 that he was able to let them know that he was alive. For most of the time they only knew that he was missing. The next few months passed more quickly than the first year. When food improved and aircraft flights calmed down, the men knew the war was nearly over. Eventually the day came, which they had placed bets on, when it was officially announced the war was over. On crossing the Bridge of No Return, Rex gleefully vowed that the Chinese would not be seeing him again. His first food on return was a selection of fruit juices, which he grabbed one of each and was nearly sick since his body was not accustomed to such rich foods, but a hot shower following made him feel much better.
His misfortune in Korea and poor treatment did not dissuade Rex from staying in the service, and he continued to fly with the SAAF until the late 1950s when he resigned his commission and joined the Royal Rhodesian Air Force to be one of the first two pilots in No. 7 Squadron. Within a month, the fledgling unit had their first aircraft and along with Squadron Leader Dowden, Rex lifted off in their new Alouette Mk. 111. His first year flying helicopters with the squadron was predominantly for training and demonstrations of how valuable the rotary wing aircraft could be. In the coming years the squadron was constantly on call to quell terrorist operations and they soon realized what difficult times were in store for Rhodesia. With enthusiasm and professionalism, No. 7 Squadron supported the Army and Police to rout gangs and extremists and avenge murders of locals. It was a tumultuous time in the country’s history and Rex saw that the issues were not always simply settled, but layered with emotion and years of history that complicated the current political climate during a time that the British Empire was dissolving across the world
“Rhodesian Air Force No. 7 Squadron.” No. 7 Squadron, The Rhodesian Air Force, rhodesianforces.org/No7Sqn.htm.
“7 Squadron Diaries 1962-1974.” Our Rhodesian Heritage, Rhodesia Remembered, 27 July 2012, rhodesianheritage.blogspot.com/2012/07/.
7 Squadron Photos courtesy Rhodesian Services Association Inc