Denis Earp: SAAF chief who flew in Korean War

26 May 2019 - 00:00 By CHRIS BARRON

Lt Gen Denis Earp, who has died in Pretoria at the age of 88, was a former chief of the South African Air Force (SAAF) and a fighter pilot in the Korean War.
He was shot down and spent two hellish years as a prisoner of war (POW).
Born in Bloemfontein on June 7 1930, he attended Grey College where his father was a teacher. He joined the SAAF in 1950 when the Korean War started, hoping he'd be in time to join in.
He trained in Harvards and Spitfires, and flew his first combat mission over North Korea in 1951 at the age of 20 with 260 hours of flying time behind him. He knew it wasn't a game when shortly after getting to Korea a friend he'd trained with was shot down and killed. Another friend crashed while taking off on his first combat mission with a full load of napalm, rockets and guns and was killed in the resulting inferno.
In one three-day period six South African pilots, who were flying Mustangs against very superior MiG 15s, were shot down. SA lost 35 pilots during the war.
In September 1951, three months after his first combat mission, Earp was shot down. With his cockpit on fire and blinded by oil over the canopy, he baled out and was shot at as he parachuted down. Pilots had been told that if they were captured by North Koreans they'd be killed. If captured by the Chinese, maybe not.
Suffering burn wounds and a badly injured knee, Earp was captured by Chinese soldiers who beat him up badly before the first of many interrogations. The Chinese didn't recognise niceties such asthe Geneva Convention. He was told that if he answered all questions with "sincerity" he wouldn't be killed.
When he refused to answer a question he was marched into some trees and asked if he wanted a blindfold. Thinking they were bluffing, he said no, and they repeated the question. Having been trained to give no more than his name, rank and number he still refused to answer.
The leader cocked his gun, pointed it at his face and pulled the trigger. It went click and, he wrote in his subsequent account, he came close to total mental collapse. For the rest of his life he never forgot the sight of the pistol pointing at his face.
Then he was thrown into a 1m-deep pit with corrugated iron over the top. The next few weeks he alternated between the hole and a small interrogation room. Eventually a confession was beaten out of him that he was an agent provocateur on a sabotage mission.
He was "tried" and sentenced to death but told he wouldn't be shot yet. The sentence hung over him till his release two years later.
He was taken to interrogation headquarters in Pyongyang. When he tried to escape he was moved to a "real hellhole" called Pak's Palace, a notorious North Korean interrogation centre described in a 1955 report of the US secretary of defence's advisory committee on POWs as "possibly the worst camp endured by American POWs in Korea", run by Col Pak, "a sadist, an animal who should have been kept in a cage".
There were 21 prisoners when Earp arrived and 14 were still alive when he left. Dysentery was the big killer. The water they drank came from paddy fields where the fertiliser was human excrement.
They spent most of their time in holes. They were taken out, beaten with telephone cable and shoved back in.
They were taken on forced marches from camp to camp, having to carry comrades who couldn't walk because of dysentery. Those who couldn't go on were left where they dropped without food or water, and their comrades never saw them again.
The POWs were subjected to continuous interrogation, beatings, political re-education sessions and long periods in holes where they sat in their own excrement. Earp's weight dropped to 40kg and he could put his fingers round his thighs.
He was released in September 1953, two months after hostilities ended.
Back in SA he led the last Spitfire flight that ever flew in the SAAF before becoming a pilot attack instructor at the Air Operations School.
After a series of senior appointments, including overseeing SAAF operations in Namibia and Angola, he served as chief of the SAAF from 1984 to 1988. He was widely referred to as "Uncle Denis".
Earp died of a heart attack. He is survived by his wife, Beth and a daughter. His son Michael, a helicopter pilot, was killed in 1982 when he was shot down during the so-called border war.

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