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The Skies Of Korea: The Air War for a New Era

The air war in Korea introduced silvery jets that clashed at the edge of the stratosphere, their swept-back wings glinting in the sun. But most combat missions in Korea were flown by planes with propellers. And often, the life of an airman was as gritty as the lot of an infantry soldier, especially when maintainers, crews, and pilots tried to get the job done at roughshod airfields in the extremes of sweltering summer and frigid winter. At one such airfield, American airmen lived in tents and created furniture out of the wooden crates in which 5-inch, high-velocity aircraft rockets were delivered.

The Korean War assured the survival of an independent Republic of Korea (ROK) south of the 38th parallel. At a later juncture in history, when pundits compared Korea superficially with Vietnam, nearly everyone forgot that Korea was a success story.

Together with those who fought on land and sea, airmen in Korea halted in its tracks a blatant move by the foe to snatch South Korea. The Korean War assured the survival of an independent Republic of Korea (ROK) south of the 38th parallel. At a later juncture in history, when pundits compared Korea superficially with Vietnam, nearly everyone forgot that Korea was a success story.

F-86 Sabres

F-86 Sabres of the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing over Korea. Sabres were considered a match for the MiG-15 during the Korean War and racked up an impressive kill ratio. National Archives photo

It did not begin that way. In the early hours of Sunday, June 25, 1950, in darkness and driving rain, North Korean armed forces crossed the 38th parallel at half a dozen locations. The invasion of South Korea was launched by 90,000 men and hundreds of Russian-made T-34 medium tanks. North Korea also put into the battle its modest air arm, commanded by Maj. Gen. Wang Yong, a Soviet Air Academy graduate.

The invasion of South Korea was launched by 90,000 men and hundreds of Russian-made T-34 medium tanks. North Korea also put into the battle its modest air arm, commanded by Maj. Gen. Wang Yong, a Soviet Air Academy graduate.

The North Korean air force had about 150 propeller-driven fighter-bombers, including Lavochkin La-9s, Ilyushin Il-10 Sturmoviks, Yakovlev Yak-7s, Yak-9s, and Yak-18s.

F-80C Shooting Stars

U.S. Air Force F-80C Shooting Star fighters from the 8th Fighter Bomber Squadron, 49th Fighter Bomber Group, during the Korean War, in 1950-1951. The aircraft are equipped with “Misawa” long-range tanks on their wingtips. U.S. Air Force photo

To some military planners, this was a rude distraction from the topic they continued to give higher priority – the looming atomic threat from the Soviet Union. If war was to come, it would come against Russia. Collier’s magazine frightened the living daylights out of everybody by devoting an entire issue to a fictitious “history” of a nuclear World War III that ended with American tanks rolling into Moscow.

If war was to come, it would come against Russia. Collier’s magazine frightened the living daylights out of everybody by devoting an entire issue to a fictitious “history” of a nuclear World War III that ended with American tanks rolling into Moscow.

Unready for War

The Allies still occupied Japan, and the United States had formidable forces in the Far East, but the United States was far from ready for a fight on the Korean Peninsula. The draft-era citizen soldiers of Task Force Smith, rushed into Korea to confront oncoming T-34 tanks, were poorly trained and poorly equipped and sustained high casualties. Air Force squadrons in the region were equipped with the F-80 Shooting Star jet fighter, but the brass quickly had to order up a batch of older, prop-driven F-51 Mustangs to cope with North Korea’s Yaks. The carrier USS Valley Forge (CV 45) was nearby and soon took up station in the Sea of Japan, but the Navy, too, would suffer equipment and readiness problems for months.

B-29 Superfortress

A U.S. Air Force Boeing B-29 Superfortress from the 307th Bomb Group bombing a target in Korea, circa 1950-1951. The bomber’s vulnerability to MiGs saw it consigned to night missions later in the war. U.S. Air Force photo

Once President Harry S Truman made the difficult decision to intervene in Korea – and, during a Russian boycott of the Security Council, the United Nations (U.N.) voted to join in, eventually committing forces from 20 countries – Korea became a furious battle in a small, crowded place. Truman coined the unfortunate term “police action,” but Korea was a war and everybody knew it. To some, it was deja vu: B-29 Superfortress crews flying from Okinawa began flying bombing missions not unlike those they’d flown five years earlier. B-26 Invader medium bomber crews did much the same.

To some, it was deja vu: B-29 Superfortress crews flying from Okinawa began flying bombing missions not unlike those they’d flown five years earlier. B-26 Invader medium bomber crews did much the same.

On June 27, 1950, Lt. William “Skeeter” Hudson and Lt. Carl Fraser, in a twin-engined, twin-boom F-82 Twin Mustang, managed to shoot down a Yakovlev Yak-7U, the first aerial victory of the war. On July 3, 1950, F9F-3 Panther pilots Ensign E.W. Brown and Lt. j.g. Leonard Plog of squadron VF-51 each shot down a Yak-9 on the first combat sortie, ever, by Navy jet-powered aircraft. Throughout the summer, friendly fighters racked up numerous additional aerial kills until they had virtually swept the North Korean air force from the skies.

F-51 Mustang

A U.S. Air Force North American F-51D-20-NA Mustang of the U.S. 5th Air Force’s 39th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, 18th Fighter Bomber Wing, releases two napalm bombs over an industrial military target in North Korea, in 1951. This aircraft was shot down by MiG-15s on Sept. 13, 1951. National Archives photo

American pilots fought beside South Africans and Australians in F-51 Mustangs, Greeks in C-47 Skytrains, Britons and Canadians in Seafires, Fireflies, Sea Furies, and Meteors, and scattered throughout U.S. units on exchange postings, and many others. While U.S. Navy fleet carriers usually handled the war off the east coast of Korea in the Sea of Japan, British carriers and U.S. Navy escort and light carriers were typically stationed to the west in the Yellow Sea.

American pilots fought beside South Africans and Australians in F-51 Mustangs, Greeks in C-47 Skytrains, Britons and Canadians in Seafires, Fireflies, Sea Furies, and Meteors, and scattered throughout U.S. units on exchange postings, and many others.

The war changed once in September 1950 with Operation Chromite, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur’s “end run” amphibious landing behind the lines at the port of Inchon, a few miles west of Seoul. It changed again, even more drastically,  in November 1950, when China entered the war. Abruptly, hundreds of thousands of Chinese troops advanced against United Nations forces, pushing them all the way south of Seoul once again. By mid-1951, friendlies recaptured Seoul and the battle lines began to stabilize.

F-84 Thunderjets

U.S. Air Force Republic F-84E-15-RE Thunderjet fighters from the 27th Fighter Escort Group in flight over Korea, circa 1951. The F-84E 49-2364 (foreground) was shot down by flak southwest of Sinanju, North Korea, on Oct. 13, 1951, while assigned to 136th Fighter Bomber Wing (FBW). The F-84E 49-2356 (middle aircraft) crashed during a strafing mission on Jan. 6, 1952. U.S. Air Force photo

On Nov. 1, 1950, F-51 Mustangs were engaged by six swept-wing jet fighters that lashed out at them from across the Yalu River. What United Nations experts did not know was that the “Chinese air force” included entire squadrons of Russians who were drilling in MiG-15s on the north bank of the Yalu. On Nov. 8, 1950, F-80C Shooting Star pilot Lt. Russell J. Brown was credited with shooting down a MiG-15. In recent years, records surfaced indicating that no MiG fell that day, but Brown remains in the books as the victor in history’s first jet-versus-jet aerial combat.

On Nov. 8, 1950, F-80C Shooting Star pilot Lt. Russell J. Brown was credited with shooting down a MiG-15. In recent years, records surfaced indicating that no MiG fell that day, but Brown remains in the books as the victor in history’s first jet-versus-jet aerial combat.

Hundreds of Soviet-built MiG-15 fighters were now at the ready on the north side of the Yalu. The MiGs were the genesis of a new, jet-equipped Chinese air force, but with most of its pilots, so far, from the Soviet Union.

MiG-15

A gun camera photo of a MiG-15 under fire taken during combat somewhere over the skies of Korea. U.S. Air Force photo

The U.N. forces had no fighter to cope with the MiG-15. Used properly, the MiG had the means to wrest air supremacy from U.N. forces over the Korean Peninsula and bushwhack American B-26s and B-29s with ease.

Though few knew the foe’s identity, one understaffed Sabre group was now pitted against three groups of MiG-15s, two of which were commanded by well-known Soviet aces from World War II – Evgeny Pepelyaev and Ivan Kozhedub.

In response, the United States readied the 4th Fighter Interceptor Group, which reached Korea and began engaging the MiG-15 in December 1950. The group introduced the thoroughbred that is perhaps the best-known warplane of the era: the F-86 Sabre. Though few knew the foe’s identity, one understaffed Sabre group was now pitted against three groups of MiG-15s, two of which were commanded by well-known Soviet aces from World War II – Evgeny Pepelyaev and Ivan Kozhedub.

B-26- Invader

A U.S. Air Force Douglas B-26- Invader of the 452nd Bombardment Wing bombing a target in North Korea, May 29, 1951. National Archives photo

For reasons never made clear, the communist side was reluctant to seize the advantage offered by its superb MiG-15 and by its skilled Soviet pilots in Manchuria. Perhaps the Chinese feared retaliation against their sanctuaries north of the Yalu. Perhaps they simply lacked experience using their air force to support ground troops. For whatever reason, the MiG-15 was a dominant force in “MiG Alley,” but never flew farther south to threaten troops on the battlefield.

For whatever reason, the MiG-15 was a dominant force in “MiG Alley,” but never flew farther south to threaten troops on the battlefield.

By late 1951, the battle lines in Korea were nearly static. But before that happened, an especially aggressive attack by MiG-15s damaged 10 B-29 Superfortresses, three of which made emergency landings. The 4th Wing resumed operations at Kimpo Air Base (AB), and soon afterward the 51st Wing was flying F-86s from Suwon AB, heavily outnumbered by the MiG force but determined to prevent the MiGs from further threatening the B-29s.

AD-4 Skyraider

An AD-4 Skyraider of Attack Squadron 65 (VA-65) on the deck of the USS Philippine Sea (CV 47) off the coast of Korea. The Skyraider was the backbone of U.S. Navy strike aircraft during the Korean War. National Naval Aviation Museum photo

China’s intervention in Korea was the undoing of MacArthur, and he was replaced by Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway (who quickly received a fourth star). As the war progressed, all kinds of air actions were taking place – also in 1951, Navy AD Skyraiders attacked and breached the Hwachon dam on the Pukhan River, the very last time in history the U.S. Navy employed aerial torpedoes in combat – but it was the battle between the Sabre and the MiG that captured the imagination of the public. When F-86 Sabre pilot James Jabara racked up his fifth and sixth aerial victories on May 20, 1951, the United States had its first air ace of the war.

It was the battle between the Sabre and the MiG that captured the imagination of the public.

At one point in 1951, the Chinese possessed 445 MiG-15s while 89 Sabres were in inventory.  The numbers never got better, not after truce talks began, with the U.N. delegation headed by Adm. C. Turner Joy. On Sept. 9, 1951, a pitched duel was fought between 28 Sabres and 70 MiGs. Capt. Richard S. Becker and Capt. Ralph D. “Hoot” Gibson each racked up their fifth MiG kills to become the second and third air aces of the conflict. Before the conflict ended, 39 Sabre pilots and one F4U Corsair pilot would shoot down at least five enemy planes to become aces.

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Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...