Valor: Epitaph for a Valiant Airman

April 1, 1990

By World War II pilot standards, Louis Sebille was an old man. When he began flight training in January 1942, he was two months beyond the maximum age of 26. Nevertheless, he proved to be an outstanding pilot and a born leader. According to his contemporaries, he also was a man of great poise and charm, which is not surprising. After leaving Wayne State University in Detroit, he spent some time as a nightclub entertainer in the Chicago area, a fact that Sebille didn’t advertise.

After earning his wings, Lieutenant Sebille was assigned to the 450th Bombardment Squadron, 322d Bomb Wing, at MacDill Field, Fla., flying the accident-prone Martin B-26 Marauder (“One a day in Tampa Bay”). The group moved to England in early 1943. There Sebille piloted one of 12 B-26s in the first minimum-level Marauder attack against targets in Europe. Three days later, the 322d sent a squadron on a similar mission. One B-26 aborted; all others were lost to flak and fighters. After that, Marauders operated at medium altitude.

Sebille rapidly advanced to flight leader, then to squadron operations officer, and in rank to major. He flew 68 combat missions, most of them as either group or wing leader, before returning to the States in March 1945. Comments by his superiors noted his tactical skill, courage, and inspirational leadership. Here, it would seem, was an airman with a future.

Older readers will remember the disorganization and confusion in the early postwar Air Force as its size plummeted from 2.4 million men and women to fewer than 400,000 with virtually no combat-ready capability. Like many others, Sebille was lured from the service by the promise of a flying future with the airlines. Less than a year later, in July 1946, he was offered a regular commission and returned to active duty in a variety of flying assignments, among them instructor pilot in the F-51 Mustang and F-80 Shooting Star. Two years later, he arrived at Clark AB in the Philippines and, in November 1948, was appointed Commander of the 67th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, 18th Fighter-Bomber Group.

As the political situation along the Communist periphery in Europe and Asia deteriorated, Major Sebille was faced with the formidable task of training new and recalled pilots and of converting from F-51s to F-80s. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded the South in overwhelming numbers, rapidly forcing South Korean troops, soon reinforced by US ground forces, back toward a perimeter defense around Pusan at the southern end of the peninsula.

A few days later Sebille’s squadron was ordered to convert back to F-51s, move north from Clark to Ashiya on the southernmost main Japanese island of Kyushu, and join in a desperate defense of the Republic of Korea. In less than a month the squadron was in place, combat-ready.

Early in the afternoon of Aug. 5, 1950, Major Sebille led a formation of F-51s, armed with 500-pound bombs and rockets, on a strike against enemy troops advancing toward Pusan. Reporting in to the Joint Operations Center at Taegu, they were told to contact a Mosquito FAC near Hamchang. Sebille then was directed to attack enemy forces crossing the Naktong River. On the first pass Sebille was able to release only one of his two bombs. He and his wingmen began strafing troops and launching rockets against equipment concealed under trees on the river bank, Sebille still carrying one 500-pounder.

Capt. Martin Johnson, one of the Major’s wingmen, checked Sebille’s aircraft as they pulled up from a pass on enemy trucks and saw engine coolant streaming from his leader’s F-51. Johnson urged Sebille to break off the attack and head south for airstrip K-2 at Taegu. Since the plane was still under control, he could at least make it to friendly territory and bail out before his engine quit.

Johnson later reported that Sebille replied, “I’ll never be able to make it back. I’m going back and get that bastard.” Sebille then lined up on an enemy truck and flew directly into it at a 30-degree angle, his guns blazing until he crashed into the ground in a huge bail of fire.

Sebille was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic sacrifice. He was the first of only four Air Force men to be awarded the nation’s highest decoration for valor during the Korean War. On Aug. 24, 1951, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg presented the Medal to Sebille’s widow and young son in a ceremony at March AFB.

In the September 1951 issue of AIR FORCE Magazine, Captain Johnson ended a tribute to Sebille with these words: “On this summer afternoon in Korea we had lost a remarkable friend, a fine commander, and a very brave man.” No military leader could hope for a more eloquent epitaph than that.

Published April 1990. For presentation on this web site, some Valor articles have been amended for accuracy.