It was just 17 days into the Korean War when a B-29 bomber took off from Okinawa. The crew was starting their eighth mission over North Korea, and the target was to bomb a bridge in a chain of islands off the Inchon Peninsula to try and stop the North Korean advance into South Korea.
The World War Two era bomber carried 13 crew members, including a young Air Force private named Everett Hardway. No one called him Everett however, he was known as “Tony” a nickname given to him because his curly hair looked like it had just had a Toni brand permanent. Hardway was typical of many, having grown up in rural West Virginia, where he had few choices. He could work in the coal mines, the railroad or join the service. He chose the Air Force.
While crew was from all over the U.S., some college educated some barely out of high school, but one thing they had in common was their “blood chit,” which they wore or carried in the hope that if they were shot down the reward for their safe return written on the Chit would somehow keep them out of North Korean hands and certain death in a POW camp.
The idea of a blood chit originated in 1793 when French balloonist Jean-Pierre Blanchard demonstrated his hot air balloon in the United States for George Washington. Because Blanchard didn’t speak English, Washington gave him a letter advising Americans to return him to Philadelphia if his balloon went astray.
American pilots began carrying the blood chits in earnest prior to the start of World War Two, when flying against Japan in China as part of the famous Flying Tigers. As the war against Japan became a full-fledged world war, blood chits were carried along with trinkets and coins as an additional incentive to keep pilots out of the hands of Japanese soldiers.
Tony Hardway followed that tradition on July 12, 1950 carrying a $100 gold piece along with his blood chit on a scarf, which offered a reward to anyone helping him get back to friendly territory if shot down. The blood chit Hardway carried said in Korean: “I am an American, misfortune forces me to seek your assistance in obtaining food, shelter and protection from the Communists.” The blood chit also promised “My government will reward you.”
The blood chit wasn’t on Hardway’s mind when three soviet built YAK-9 planes attacked his B-29. “I was a gunner, and I was hit,” said Hardway. The B-29 was severely damaged and had an engine on fire. “We were told to bail out from the rear of the plane. The pilot was trying to get us over the sea, and away from the land and the North Koreans,” Hardway continued. The first two crew members that jumped landed on land in North Korea. The next seven jumped and landed on an island just off the coast.
Hardway was wounded however, and couldn’t use the rear exit. “I had no choice so I just jumped out the bomb bay doors straight down, and landed in the water.” Hardway wasn’t in the water long when a fishing boat pulled him out of the Yellow sea. “They pulled me up and immediately dressed me up like a Korean,” Hardway remembered.
One Korean in the boat Yu Song Dan, found a scarf on Hardway with an American flag and several languages — the blood chit. He took it to his father, Yu Ho Chun who was head of the village of Chumen-Do.
That night, Yu Ho Chun and five villagers risked their lives loading up the other seven airmen that had landed on the island, and started south for the allied lines. The fishing boat moved mostly at night trying to avoid being seen. Twice, the boat was stopped by North Korean military, but somehow the villagers talked their way past them. It took four days and 100 miles to find the British ship HMS Alacrity and transfer the men aboard. Hardway was immediately taken to the ship’s infirmary and his wounds treated. By July 19 he was in a hospital in Osaka, Japan.
The Koreans returned to the island and hid themselves, but a neighbor turned them in to the North Korean police and the six villagers were captured. They were tortured, and Yu Ho Chun was killed with bayonets held by 10 North Korean soldiers. Five other villagers died with him. The son and the remainder of their family were later exiled. Asked about his saviors, Hardway remembers that he gave them his $100 gold piece but they didn’t ask him for anything for saving his and the other airmen’s lives.
The two airmen who bailed out over land were captured by the North Koreans after being turned in by the Korean civilian who found them. They were taken to a prison camp in Pyongyang where only 275 men of 738 held there during the war survived. The two men, Lt. Robert Layton and Cpl. Paul Miller, were either shot or died of starvation.
The exiled son of the village leader, Yu Song Dan, eventually immigrated to the United States and settled in the Houston, Texas area. In 1993, Yu was given a check from the U.S. government for $100,000, the largest known amount ever awarded under the blood chit program. When asked if he knew why his father saved the airmen, Yu said that his father loved Americans for trying to help Korea and that “It was the humane thing to do.”
In total, 42 airmen were rescued under the blood chit program during the Korean War. Blood chits were used later in the Vietnam War, and the program continues on, with airmen flying in Iraq and Afghanistan wearing the pleas for assistance.
Hardway continued with his Air Force career and stayed on active duty until 1974. He spent time advising the Shah’s air force in Iran, and later the airmen of South Vietnam. After leaving the service, Hardway worked as a quality assurance engineer for Martin Marietta and eventually retired in Colorado.
Hardway discovered Mesquite when he and his wife Ginger would travel from Denver to Las Vegas for bowling tournaments. In 1997 Tony and Ginger Hardway moved to Mesquite.
When asked about his experiences in Korea, Hardway looks you in the eye, “I consider myself one of the luckiest people I know.” He then adds, “There was some reason for me to survive, that’s why I get involved.”
As a way to contribute, Hardway has been a member of the Mesquite Honor Guard since 2000, and participates in over 30 functions a year. He is also an active member of many veteran’s organizations and is active at the Mesquite Veterans Center.
Hardway finished the interview saying, “I’ll never be a couch potato.”