Rumors of peace were in the air when four Banshee jets took off from the aircraft carrier USS Lake Champlain for a combat mission deep into North Korea.
It was the morning of July 26, 1953. The next day at 10:01 a.m. the delegates meeting at the Panmunjom "truce village" would, in fact, begin signing the armistice that ended combat in Korea. Fighting, officially, stopped at 10 p.m. July 27, Monday in Korea, Sunday in the United States.
Flying north on the 26th were Stanley M. Montunnas, the flight leader, then a lieutenant commander, his wingman, Ensign W.K. "Monk" McManus, Lt. William M. Russell and his wingman, Ensign Edwin Nash Broyles Jr.
Broyles, 27, was from Baltimore. His folks lived on Bedford Place, just off Charles Street in Guilford. His father, Dr. Edwin Nash Broyles, was a distinguished physician. His mother, Eleanor Custis Whiteley Broyles, traced her ancestry to a brother of Martha Washington's first husband.
On this day half a century ago, their son was flying a mission from which he would never return.
"Remember [Broyles]?" Montunnas says. "Hell, yeah! He was a really fine young officer, a very good naval aviator. He was a straight-shooter."
Montunnas is 78 now and lives in El Cajon, Calif. He retired a captain in 1972, after 35 years in the Navy, mostly as a flier.
"I think we stole him from a Banshee squadron in the Jacksonville [Fla.] area," Montunnas says. "We were sailing to Korea and we needed some replacements."
Bill Russell recalls that Broyles was one of a half-dozen pilots who joined Fighter Squadron 22 (VF-22) to go to Korea aboard the Lake Champlain, "the Champ," as the sailors said. "He volunteered to go into combat," Russell says in a telephone interview.
Russell lives in La Jolla, Calif. He retired as a captain, too. He graduated from the Naval Academy in 1947, a classmate of future President Jimmy Carter. He served two tours of duty, about six years, as a test pilot at Patuxent Naval Air Station. He was deputy commander there when he retired in 1976.
The Champ had sailed from Mayport, Fla., in April 1953, crossed the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, passed through the Suez Canal and made a call in Manila before arriving at the Naval station in Yokosuka, Japan, in June.
"She made her first combat launch on June 13," according to an online history. From then until the truce on July 27, the Champ launched hundreds of combat sorties in support of ground forces in Korea.
Broyles' flight was either the last or second last.
"We were up north of Hungnam, up the valley there," Montunnas says. Hungnam became famous in 1950 as the port through which the Marines who had fought out of the Choisin Reservoir were evacuated when the Chinese army flooded down from Manchuria across the Yalu River. Montunnas and his flight were 150 to 200 miles north of Hungnam. It was a reconnaissance flight in search of targets of opportunity.
"We spotted a dam that was still intact," Montunnas says. "So we went to hit the dam and demolish it. ... We all made the run on the dam."
Four Banshees. The McConnell F2H-2 Banshee was a two-engine jet fighter-bomber that could carry a 1,000-pound bomb load, or, especially equipped, a nuclear bomb.
"I think we were carrying 250-pounders," Montunnas says. "We didn't carry any less."
The dam was in a fairly steep canyon in a barren landscape. A topographical map of this part of North Korea typically looks like a crumpled sheet of brown wrapping paper.
"I led the division in," he says. "We were running parallel to the dam, not perpendicular to it. We were coming down the length of the dam so we'd have a good chance of hitting a portion of it."
Broyles was No. 4 in the run, "Tail-end Charlie," in the parlance of naval aviators, a dangerous slot if there was anti-aircraft fire. But nobody on the flight saw any.
"It was a milk run," Russell says, "a piece of cake."
He went in No. 3.
"When we pulled out and I looked back there was a hell of an explosion at the target with a lot of yellow flame at the bottom. I exclaimed: `Stan, you got a great secondary explosion there.'"
But, moments later, when they regrouped 4,000 feet over the target it became clear that Edwin Broyles was gone.
"It was a pretty traumatic experience," Russell says. "I must say there wasn't much doubt in my mind but what Ed was killed right off the bat when he went in."
Montunnas put out a mayday distress call and they circled the area until they had to return to the carrier.
It was about 11 o'clock in the morning, less than 24 hours before the truce was signed.
The next day a reconnaissance airplane photographed the crash site. The truce itself precluded a search on the ground, so Broyles' body was never recovered. (Of 8,150 U.S. service personnel missing in Korea, the remains of just 27 have been identified and returned to their families in the 50 years since the cease-fire.)
In the photographs, Russell says, "you could see where it had all been burned out ... You could see it clearly."