Inter-service struggles in Washington took place amid the looming threat of atomic war between the United States and the Soviet Union. But naval aviators soon were fighting high above the gnarled brown ridges and soot-filled cities on the Korean peninsula. On July 3, 1950, the target was an airfield near North Korea’s capital. The U.S. Navy was flying its first-ever combat mission using jet aircraft. It was the first combat for the F9F Panther carrier-based jet fighter. Two of the Panther pilots reflected a change in generations amid the Navy’s transition from props to jets – Ensign Eldon Brown, who had never flown anything but jets, and Lt. j.g. Leonard “Len” Plog, who was a retread from the previous war.
When war began on June 25, the nearest aircraft carrier was USS Valley Forge (CV 45), at anchor near Hong Kong. “Happy Valley,” sailors called the ship. Its squadrons included VF-51 and VF-52 with F9F-3 Panthers, VF-53 and VF-54 with F4U-4B Corsairs, and VA-55 with AD-4 Skyraiders.
“A lot of attention was focused on the fact that we were credited with shooting down two Yakovlev Yak-9 fighters,” said Brown, who at the time was an ensign in VF-51. “But our purpose was to enable Valley Forge’s Corsairs and Skyraiders to strike at the rear of a North Korean offensive that was succeeding in the south.”
Brown and his fellow pilots launched at 9:35 a.m. and flew toward Pyongyang. Carrier Air Group Commander (CAG) Cmdr. Harvey Lanham led the Panthers, including one flown by Plog. “We were a mix of older and younger Navy pilots,” said Brown.
The Navy did not yet have a combat aircraft with swept wings, nor did it have a lead-computing gunsight. The F9F-3 was armed with four 20 mm cannon but was not yet fitted with pylons to carry ordnance. A widely distributed painting that shows Brown and Plog taking off carrying bombs and rockets is inaccurate.
Said Plog: “You could certainly accuse me of bridging the gap between props and jets. I flew the SB2C Helldiver in World War II. Now, I [was] on another jet pilot’s wing as our Panthers approached Pyongyang at 16,000 feet. In contrast to the brightness of the day, Pyongyang was cloaked in industrial smoke, soot, and haze. There were no obvious muzzle flashes or tracers, but our pilots believed they were fired upon once we were within a few miles of the city.”
Plog’s account continues: “When we arrived over the North Korean airfield well ahead of the Corsairs and Skyraiders, CAG Lanham went down on the deck and strafed a transport plane on the edge of the airfield. I watched Lanham’s cannon shells stir up the area around the transport, which may have been a Tachikawa Ki-54 Army Type 1 ‘Hickory,’ inherited by the North Koreans from Japanese forces during World War II. Lanham’s hits punctured the transport and kicked up dust but started no fire. I doubt that plane ever flew again.
“We made a strafing run. Lanham led the Panthers in circling the airfield and returning for a second strafing run. Some of the World War II veterans in the air that day thought this was risky.
“It was a big airport but we initially saw no aircraft. We began flying up one of the runways when my attention was drawn to a hangar to my right. An airplane taxied out of that hangar and took off from a taxiway. That’s when I thought, ‘Something is happening
“I watched the North Korean aircraft climb and saw Eldon Brown turn to get into position behind him. I looked back and did a double take. A second Yak-9 taxied out of the hangar and took off from the taxiway.
“The second Yak got 300 to 400 feet into the air and tucked in his wheels.
“I fired. My 20 mm cannon rounds blew the Yak’s wing off. It spun wildly out of control and went down.”
Brown’s account continues: “I don’t remember being concerned about making repeat passes over the airfield. When Lanham began our second trip over the runway, I saw a Yak-9 coming at me from my right. This was the first Yak seen by Plog but became the second that we engaged.
“I saw him at three o’clock, coming in. He passed over me and fired bursts at Plog – who, by then, had turned for home. I made a 360-degree turn and went after him.
“I rolled out on his tail, had the throttle all the way up, and closed on him pretty fast.
“I had time only for a short burst. It blew his tail off. The aft section came off and the main fuselage went into a steep dive. He was on fire. The tail came flying back at me. I flew between his tail and main fuselage, and then headed for home. I landed on Valley Forge with just 300 pounds of fuel. They fussed at me for coming in with a low fuel load.”
In Korea, naval aviators also flew Air Force F-86 Sabres in the air-to-air battles along MiG Alley. One, Lt. Cmdr. Paul E. Pugh, became the second American pilot to shoot down a MiG. A Marine exchange flier, Maj. John H. Glenn, Jr., bagged three MiGs in July 1953. But the inglorious air-to-ground fighting was where naval aviation made its mark. Navy fliers from U.S. Navy carriers struck vigorously at the enemy’s inland supply lines, storage centers, and communications.
Korea never distracted naval aviation planners from the Soviet threat. The Cold War always had top priority in the E Ring of the Pentagon where the Navy’s top officer, the Chief of Naval Operations, resides. In the 1950s, dozens of Lockheed P2V Neptune squadrons stalked the 450-boat Soviet submarine fleet. The Navy pioneered development of air-to-air missiles, including the Sidewinder, which became a spectacular success. There were also innovative ideas in the 1950s that didn’t quite make the grade – a tail-sitting fighter designed to take off straight up, and a jet-powered seaplane fighter, for example.
The admirals’ long search for more modern aircraft carriers reached fruition with the 78,000-ton USS Forrestal (CVA 59) in the mid-1950s. Forrestal was equipped with a new, angled deck – standard ever since – that permitted landings and takeoffs to proceed without affecting aircraft stored in the open. In many ways, Forrestal resembled the United States, the carrier the Navy had lost in Capitol Hill battles just a few years earlier.
In the 1950s, the Coast Guard carried out its difficult missions with “hand me down” aircraft that made the service resemble a World War II museum in motion. The legendary PBY Catalina was still in inventory, used now to hunt stranded mariners rather than hostile U-boats. The PB4Y-2G Privateer, its designation shortened to P4Y-2G and later to P-4A, was a nautical derivative of the wartime B-24 Liberator bomber and offered long-range and heavy-load-carrying capacity for offshore rescue missions. The wartime PBM Mariner seaplane/amphibian was joined in the 1950s by its postwar offspring, the P5M-1G Marlin (also operated in a T-tailed, P5M-2G version), later called the SP-5B, which became the penultimate seaplane in U.S. service. Not much newer was the HU-16E Albatross, a full-fledged amphibian that racked up an incredible 200,000-plus sorties in a quarter-century that ended in 1976.
The Navy, Coast Guard, and Marines all invested heavily in helicopters on the eve of an American war where the helicopter would be the star player. In the Coast Guard, Sikorsky-built helicopters, principally the HO3S-1G and HO4S-1G, labored mightily through the 1950s and 1960s, setting a precedent for the service’s later HH-52 Seaguards and HH-3F Pelicans, and for the HH-60J Jayhawk of the 21st century. The Marines introduced one of the great aircraft of all time in the CH-46 Sea Knight – the “Phrog” they called it – and a superb heavy lifter in the H-53 Stallion. Versions of both are still pulling heavy duty half a century later.
In the post-Korea years, the Navy continued technical and scientific development. The Vought F8U Crusader became the service’s first jet fighter capable of going supersonic in level flight. The Navy introduced the mirror landing system and ground-level ejection. The keel was laid for the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Enterprise (CVN 65).
The late 1950s and early 1960s were dominated by events in space, and naval aviators assigned to NASA were at the forefront as astronauts.
In 1961, Cmdr. Alan B. Shepard became the first American in space. A year later, John H. Glenn – now a lieutenant colonel – became the first American to orbit the Earth. Former naval aviator Neil A. Armstrong took the first walk on the moon in 1969.
This article first appeared in Air Power at Sea: A Century of U.S. Naval Aviation.