Belleair Mayor Gary Katica Revisits Republic of Korea and His Past
By Renee Burrell
Instead of waiting to be drafted, Katica quit high school, joined the Air Force, tested well, and received training as a Combat Air Traffic Controller. July 23rd marked the 56th year anniversary of his induction date in 1952
Belleair's Mayor Gary Katica is not reluctant to talk about his Air Force service as an air traffic controller in the Korean War. In fact, the subject comes up often lately. He and his wife of 47 years, Mary, recently returned from a Far East trip to China and to South Korea, where the Republic of Korea honored him and other war veterans for combating the communist North Koreans from 1950-1953.
Each year, since 1975, the South Korean Government offers an expense-free tour to veterans of the 22 United Nation Allies. Yang Kim, Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs for the Republic of Korea said in his welcome message to Katica's group, "We ask you to look back at the past that you participated in and see the differences and freedoms that you have given us…Your honor, courage and commitment will never be forgotten."
To show their gratitude, the government throws a massive reception for the visiting veterans. Myung-Bak Lee, the nation's president was the keynote speaker and a special ceremony was held during the event to present Katica and the other vets with medals. Katica tried to explain the enormity of the event. "They held the reception in a huge indoor arena. Eight to ten thousand South Koreans came to honor us. The Minister spoke and thanked us and the crowds roared. When it was over, we got up and exited to their applause. It was unbelievable. The South Koreans were all terrific and treated us like heroes from the time we got off of the plane."
Katica said he never thought of himself as a 'hero'.
Stops of interest during the tour included the village of Panmunjeom, where after two years of peace talks, the armistice was signed in July, 1953. A stop in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the dividing line just north of the 38th parallel where north and south soldiers stand guarding each side was intense. Said Katica, "That was the most hostile environment I've ever been in. Everybody's on pins and needles. We were warned not to make any gestures or point. A week after we left, a South Korean girl was killed trying to get across to visit her family."
Katica noted that, from his 6'5" height, the South Korean guards at the DMZ were surprisingly tall too, unlike their enemies who were short but whose uniforms include tall hats.
The tour also included sites around Seoul. "It's amazing what the South Koreans have done. Seoul was leveled. The whole country was torn apart. I was astounded at what a metropolis it's become. The sacrifice was almost worth it."
As a Combat Air Traffic Controller 18 miles south of the 38th parallel in Chin Chon (K46) and later in winter at Osan (K55), Katica guided hundreds of pilots to safety but sadly remembers the dozen that he couldn't help. "I heard their last words."
Katica's favorite assignment was being stationed in Tampa at MacDill Strategic Air Command under General Curtis LeMay. He was also able to spend time with his favorite uncle who lived in the city.
A letter of commendation came from then Clearwater Police Chief, George T. McClamma, and resulted in a promotion to sergeant for Katica, then 21, after performing an act of heroism off base on Clearwater Beach.
On May 29, 1955 he heard cries for help from two people in the water. According to an article from his Elmhurst Long Island hometown newspaper: "He dived in and rescued Mr. and Mrs. Warren Hudson of Lakeland, who had waded too far from shore while fishing and had been swept into deep water by a strong current. Neither of the Hudsons could swim, and Katica had to give Mrs. Hutton artificial respiration for 10 minutes before she regained consciousness."
On the brave rescue, Katica says a different Belleair Mayor tops that. In one of the most striking "It's such a small world" stories, Katica relayed how he was invited to attend the Federal Aviation Association Academy of in Oklahoma City and graduated as an Airways Operations Specialist assigned to the New York Center of Air Traffic Control. "We had all been briefed that TWA's Super G Constellation, under certain conditions, could develop ice in the fuel system. And to just, 'be aware'."
Katica was assigned a swing shift in Ocean one night in February 1957. "At around 9 p.m. I got a May Day. . . The pilot said he had engine failure--of all four engines! I immediately jumped to my sector and saw he was up 22 thousand feet, 200 miles east of Boston. . .A couple of heart thumping minutes passed and then the pilot said number 3 started, then number 2, then number 1."
Katica said he asked the pilot his intentions. The pilot said he'd see what his crew wanted to do and came back saying they decided to continue on to their Paris destination. "I had always considered that pilot the bravest man in the world," stated Katica.
Years passed after the incident. College at CW Post Long Island University and a basketball scholarship. His wedding to Mary in 1961. Two kids, Harry and Irene. Seventeen years in real estate on Long Island at Port Jefferson, where he was elected Police Commissioner. A job with Cadillac. Vacations at their summer home in Clearwater and finally after a family vote, the decision to move to Florida permanently. A job with Dimmit Cadillac in Clearwater. And in 1984 settling into a house in Belleair, serving in the civic association and the zoning board and meeting the bravest man he ever knew; the TWA pilot from the 1957 May Day alert, former Belleair Mayor, Jack Donlan.
Katica said he asked Jack what he did. Jack said he was a pilot for TWA and Katica launched into his harrowing experience with a Super G Constellation back in '57. Katica said he was stunned when Donlan said he was that pilot. "We have relived it! Talk about a one in a million chance."
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