Thunderstorms were brewing over Manchuria a little after noon on June 27, 1953. Lt. Hank Buttelmann, a young F-86 Sabre pilot who had shipped off to fight the Korean War, had just notched his first two aerial victories in the previous week, and brimming with confidence, he was itching for more.
He was following the lead of a Royal Air Force pilot, deep into Chinese territory. They all knew enemy MiG fighters were lurking somewhere — and before long, would attack.
“Holy s---, but I felt uncomfortable,” he said in an 2009 interview with HistoryNet, a sister publication to Air Force Times.
The battle that soon ensued after two MiGs appeared was one of several in a span of weeks that left Buttelmann with seven confirmed kills during his 65 combat missions, making him at 24 the youngest — and last — ace of the Korean War.
Buttelmann, who retired as a lieutenant colonel, died at his home in Frankfort, Illinois, on Sept. 16 at 90 years of age. The four-time recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross also received a Silver Star for his bravery in Korea, where he flew alongside legendary aviators John Glenn and Buzz Aldrin. After the war, he returned home and started a family. But a dozen years later, he returned to combat during the Vietnam War and flew more missions.
To his son Kent, Buttelmann was a loving father and humble man who didn’t talk much about his exploits as one of the most daring fighter pilots in Air Force history. He didn’t even like to be saluted on base. But Kent said his father was naturally drawn to the high speed of being a fighter pilot.
“I think my dad was kind of like an adrenaline junkie,” Kent, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, told Air Force Times Oct. 31. “Just loved speed. It was exciting to him to get in the plane and be behind the stick.”
Buttelmann was born in Corona, New York, in 1929 and, inspired by a family friend who was a commercial airline pilot, dreamed of doing the same growing up, Kent said. He worked as a lifeguard as a young man at New York’s Jones Beach, Kent said, where he would sleep on the beach to save up enough money to get his private pilot’s license at about 17.
He joined the Air Force in 1952, something he always wanted to do to serve his country, Kent said, although he wasn’t thinking of flying fighter jets. Still dreaming of becoming an airline pilot, Buttelman initially sought to fly multi-engine planes, but he ended up flying single-engine planes and quickly found he loved it.
He deployed to Korea that December to fly Sabre jets with the 25th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, part of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing. There wasn’t much activity in Korea in the waning days of the war for newly arrived pilots, Kent said. Most of the action was behind enemy lines, and pilots had to work their way up to get called on one of those missions. But his dad was eager to get that chance, working his way up to becoming the wingman for his squadron commander.
He flew his first combat sortie into North Korea on Jan. 15, 1953, and from February onward flew about seven or eight missions a month. On June 19, he scored his first aerial victory near Uiju, North Korea — for which he also received his first DFC — and three days later, shot down another MiG over Yangsi.
On the mission into Manchuria, Buttelmann told HistoryNet, they were 75 miles into the northeast Chinese region when his leader saw two MiGs.
“Covering the leader on the attack, my wingman encountered oxygen problems and eventually lost track of me,” Buttelmann said in 2009. “At this point, I ran into two MiGs and attacked the trailing MiG.”
They split — one went high, the other low. Buttelmann zeroed in on the trailing MiG and shot him down. But he looked around and thought, “Where the hell is that other MiG?”
That’s when the surviving enemy pounced.
“I saw a 37mm shell the size of a white softball,” Buttelmann said in 2009. “I was also hit by groundfire.”
Warning lights blared, indicating damage on both his forward and aft sections. He pulled back on the throttle and, believing he had no other options, considered increasing his altitude so he could bail out. But at that point, the MiG overshot him and flew away.
So Buttelmann rolled out and veered south, aiming for the Yalu River on the North Korean border — where he flew right into a thunderstorm.
“It was bad weather, and he was able to maneuver his way out and into the clouds,” Kent said. “The plane was low on fuel and was on fire. He didn’t bail out, so he made it back.”
Kent said that was his father’s closest call. He wasn’t sure he was going to make it back alive.
Years later, Buttelmann told his son that he couldn’t have pulled off the death-defying things he did in Korea if he had a family to think about.
“When you’re engaged in air combat, you have no time to … think about, ‘I got to be careful,’” Kent said. “You got to go with your gut instinct. You got to kind of be reckless — you got to get in there and go for it.”
“Those guys [fighter pilots], they’re like madmen,” he continued. “They’ll take a roll into five planes, and they’ll say, ‘Well, I’m gonna get all five.’ That’s the attitude I’m sure they had. You had to, or you probably wouldn’t have survived the war.”
Though his father was usually reticent, Kent said, he was proud of his service in Korea, and often said those were the best years of his life. He came back to the States, married and had Kent and his older brother Kurt, and continued in his Air Force career.
But he missed flying, and volunteered to go to Vietnam. He served two tours during the war, flying aircraft such as the F-100 Super Sabre and F-105 Thunderchief, and there he received his third and fourth DFCs.
One of those DFCs was for a mission on June 24, 1965. Buttelmann, flying an F-105, dropped bombs on an important target in North Vietnam, according to the citation for his award.
When enemy jet fighters attacked, Buttelmann put himself right in their path and took them on.
“Through Major Buttelmann’s outstanding skill and flying ability, he was able to defend his aircraft in such a manner as to place the hostile aircraft in a defensive position which necessitated the hostile forces to withdraw,” the citation said. His daring attack bought the other American fighters time to successfully destroy their targets, without being attacked by the enemy.
On April 13, 1970, Buttelmann’s F-100 was diverted from his primary target in Southeast Asia to strike an anti-aircraft gun site along a major enemy supply route. According to the citation for his fourth DFC award, Buttelmann drew intense ground fire from two positions during this attack.
“Despite heavy tracer fire and air bursts along his flight path, he pressed the attack with multiple passes and destroyed both gun positions, silencing all hostile fire,” the citation read.
He retired from active duty in 1979 with 27 years of active duty. He lived in Las Vegas and for a time was president of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association, which no longer exists, and received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2015 for being an ace pilot.
But when Kent thinks of his father, it’s the simple things he remembers, such as Sunday routines of going to church, out for breakfast, and then to the beach.
“He loved his sons,” Kent said. “Probably because he was in the war, he appreciated family that much more.”
Jon Guttman of HistoryNet contributed to this report.