PERSONAL STORIES FROM THE FORGOTTEN KOREAN AIRWAR WORLD'S FIRST JET WAR
Just 8 years after the most catastophic war mankind had ever inflicted on itself, the democracies were waging yet another war, involving the USA and its allies, acting on behalf of the UN, and the Communist regime in Korea, backed by China and the USSR. This conflict was the first time jet on jet air combat dominated, the US principally with its North American Sabres and the Communists with their Mig 15s. Great Britain and its Commonwealth partners were also there with Meteors. It was the last hurrah for prop driven planes too, with Mustangs predominating for the US.
Yet out of all this tumult, the air stories have been largely forgotten. Aircrew Remembered wants to change all this and is actively seeking researchers both professional and part-time who can contribute personal histories from this dramatic time when the world stood on the brink of atomic warfare.
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U.S. Air Force Units in the Korean War
THE KOREAN AIR WAR
by William T. Y'Blood
At the time of the invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, Republic of Korea (ROKAF) forces numbered 98,000, with no tanks (the U.S. believed Korea to be poor tank country) and little artillery. The ROKAF armed forces were heavily weighted toward ground units; the air force was virtually a stepchild, possessing only about 20 liaison and trainer aircraft and 30 fully trained pilots. It was, basically, an internal police force.
Militarily, much stronger than the South Koreans, in June 1950, the North Koreans had an army of 135,000 men, well-equipped small arms, artillery, and T-34 tanks. (They didn't believe that Korean was poor tank country!) The NKAF had about 162 aircraft, all of World War II vintage, with aggressive and reasonably well-trained pilots.
Ostensibly, the United States maintained a large military presence in the Far East, primarily in Japan, but this was a hollow force. General Douglas MacArthur, the senior American officer, had two command responsibilities: as Supreme Commander, Allied Powers (SCAP), he exercised command over all occupation forces and, in essence, ruled Japan; as Commander-in-Chief, Far East (CINCFE), he exercised unified command of all U.S. forces in his area. MacArthur's Far East Command (FEC) included the American forces in Japan, Korea, the Ryukyus, the Philippines, the Marianas, and the Bonins. A General Headquarters (GHQ) in Tokyo administered FEC.
FEC, however, was a throwback to World War II. Although directed by the JCS to make his headquarters a joint command, MacArthur ignored this directive and FEC remained almost entirely manned by Army personnel; personnel who saw Army concerns as their only mission. Even when FEC also became the United Nations Command (UNC) headquarters, it remained basically an Army fiefdom. Not until January 1953, when Gen. Mark Clark commanded the UN forces, was the UNC/FEC headquarters reorganized to encompass a joint staff. But by this time the war was dragging into its final months and the reorganization had little effect on the prosecution of the war.
When the war began, MacArthur's main ground force was Lt. Gen. Walton H. Walker's Eighth Army, consisting of four divisions based in Japan. These divisions, however, were occupation, not combat, forces, and were not even up to their authorized peacetime strengths of 12,500 men each. Of the enlisted men in these units, many were in the Army's two lowest intelligence classifications. Shortages of everything from competent officers to rifles to tanks also plagued the Eighth Army.
Vice Admiral C. Turner Joy's Naval Forces Far East (NAVFE) also suffered from postwar cutbacks. Only some 25,000 Navy personnel were stationed in the Far East. Joy commanded only an antiaircraft cruiser, four destroyers, a submarine (on loan from the Seventh Fleet), an amphibious force of five ships, and some auxiliary vessels. The Philippines-based Seventh Fleet backed up Joy with the Essex-class carrier Valley Forge, carrying 86 planes, and several other vessels. Like the Eighth Army, Joy's command was really an occupation force, with its primary duties defensive in nature.
Finally, Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer's Far East Air Forces (FEAF) consisted of three widely spaced air forces. The Thirteenth Air Force, headquartered at Clark Field, had a fighter-bomber wing, a troop carrier squadron, and a photo mapping flight. The Twentieth Air Force, headquartered at Kadena, consisted of a fighter-interceptor wing, a fighter all-weather squadron, and a photo reconnaissance squadron. Also assigned to the Twentieth was a B-29 wing based on Guam. This wing was not part of SAC.
Largest of FEAF's units (and the organization that provided most of the Air Force resources used in Korea) was the Fifth Air Force. Led by Maj. Gen. Earle E. "Pat" Partridge and headquartered at Nagoya, the Fifth had five fighter, bomber, and troop carrier wings and three fighter and tactical reconnaissance squadrons. As of May 31, 1950, FEAF had 1,172 aircraft. Only 657 of these aircraft were actually available for use in Korea. The remaining aircraft were either in storage or had to be used for the defense of Japan, the Philippines, and Okinawa. The F-80C was by far the most numerous type (504 on hand) and the most modern in FEAF's inventory. This is not saying much because the aircraft was itself rapidly growing obsolete.
Four days after the invasion, on June 29, Gen. Stratemeyer flew with MacArthur and a few of his FEC staff to Suwon, South Korea to assess what was turning rapidly into a dangerously deteriorating situation. While MacArthur was a Suwon, four Yaks attacked the airfield. Mustangs that had escorted MacArthur's party swiftly shot down the enemy planes. This showing impressed MacArthur and he was quite amenable to Stratemeyer's request for permission to attack targets in North Korea. He granted Stratemeyer permission to attack north of the 38th Parallel, but emphasized that these attacks were to stay well clear of the Soviet and Manchurian borders. However, MacArthur had neither Presidential nor JCS authorization for such an action. The JCS did finally authorize such attacks on June 30 (Korean date), but this was not the last time MacArthur made a major decision without consulting the JCS or the President. The first strike north of the 38th Parallel took place just hours after receipt of MacArthur's authorization, and was an 18-plane effort by B-26s of the 3rd Bomb wing against the main Pyongyang military airfield. Within a few days, the NKAF ceased to be an effective force and was capable only of nuisance-type raids. With little effort, FEAF had gained air superiority.
For Stratemeyer, obtaining another kind of superiority proved fruitless. This matter revolved around who controlled the air units. It came to a head when TF77 aircraft hit Pyongyang on July 3 and 4. Although FEAF knew of the July 3 strikes, it was initially unaware that the Navy intended to also attack the following day, and FEAF had planned a B-29 attack on the same target and on the same day. When it learned of the Navy's intentions, FEAF had to cancel the B-29 mission.
Incensed about this, on July 8, Stratemeyer asked MacArthur to give him operational control of all naval land-based and carrier-based aircraft operating from Japan and over Korea, except for those operating on purely naval tasks (i.e., ASW and mining). The Navy declared this unacceptable. Seeking to break the impasse, MacArthur issued a directive on July 15, which gave Stratemeyer "coordination control" of Air Force and Navy air operations.
Actually, this term is almost an oxymoron. Throughout the war, the various FEAF commanders had trouble establishing either "coordination" or "control" of the various air units. The term was never officially defined and an unofficial definition, prepared by FEC headquarters much later, was almost an afterthought. Despite the fact there was no official definition, MacArthur never clarified its meaning and apparently never intended to. He evidently attached little importance to the matter, for his directive was written in such a way as to indicate that his headquarters would retain the final say on "coordination control." Thus this matter remained ambiguous and subject to diverse interpretations throughout the war.
On August 4, the retreat halted. American and ROK forces now held a line, the Pusan Perimeter, running approximately 100 miles north from Korea's southern coast generally along the Naktong River, then east from Waegwan to Yongdok on the east coast. On September 15, 1950, the X Corps (commanded by Lt. Gen. Edward M. Almond, MacArthur's chief of staff) landed at Inchon, which is Seoul's port. By the 28th, Seoul was cleared.
Meanwhile, Gen. Walker's Eighth Army pushed out of the Pusan Perimeter, helped considerably by B-29s making a carpet bombing attack at Waegwan. At first, the enemy resisted vigorously but the enemy's lines collapsed suddenly and what started as an orderly retreat turned into a rout. By the end of September, what was left of the North Korean Peoples Army (estimated to be not more than 30,000 men) was scurrying back across the 38th Parallel. South Korean troops crossed the Parallel on October 1, followed by the Eighth Army on the 7th. Flushed with his success at Inchon, MacArthur planned a second amphibious assault by the X Corps at Wonsan, on Korea's East Coast. This operation proved anti-climactic because ROK forces captured Wonsan before the landings took place. In fact, mines (which cost both the U.S. and ROK navies several minesweepers) forced the Marines to sit offshore for days before they were able to land on October 26.
Pyongyang fell on October 19 and by the 24th, the Eighth Army was crossing the Chongchon River. Two days later, a ROK regiment reached the Yalu River near Ch'osan. That the war was all but won appeared to be believed at all levels of command in Korea and Japan. When reports of Chinese Communist Forces (CCF) moving into Korea were received, they were not believed. On November 3, FEC estimated that only about 12,000 Chinese troops were in North Korea. Actually, on that date there were approximately 300,000 Chinese in Korea. Why was there such a massive miscounting? One reason was that Chinese generally moved at night; a second was that they were not really being looked for because of the preconceived notion that the Chinese would not get involved in Korea.
Beginning October 25, the CCF hit the Eighth Army and ROK units, halting their advance. In the X Corps zone to the east, smaller CCF attacks only blunted the advance. The lst Marine Division continued toward the Changjin (the Korean name) or Chosin (the Japanese name) Reservoir, while the 7th Infantry Division and the ROK Capital Division continued north. A regiment of the 7th Division reached the Yalu at Hyesanjin on November 21.
Within a few days the enemy counterattacks ceased and the Chinese seemingly vanished. Most intelligence reports considered these actions to have been little more than spoiling attacks by a few "volunteers." MacArthur, too, believed the Chinese would not enter Korea in force. To ensure they would not, on November 5, he ordered a series of air strikes on Yalu River bridges, especially in the region near Sinuiju. However, he also ordered that the Manchurian border was to remain inviolate. Naturally, this restriction served to limit the effectiveness of the air attacks. After all, it is hard to bomb a bridge when half of it is untouchable. It probably would not have mattered because the Chinese supplemented the permanent bridges with easily repairable pontoon bridges. Too, the Yalu was beginning to freeze, making it an easy matter for men and supplies to cross directly over the ice.
That the CCF was in Korea in large numbers was dramatically underscored on the evening of November 25 when the CCF launched a massive surprise offensive against the UN forces. Ironically, the previous day Walker had renewed his own offensive toward the Yalu only to be brought up short by the Chinese counteroffensive. The shock of the immense Chinese assaults sent the UN forces reeling backwards in a stunning defeat.
Although the battles in western Korea were important and bitterly fought (the 2d Division lost about 5,000 men alone), it was the fight of the 1st Marine division at the Chosin Reservoir that caught the attention of the press. The Marines were stopped at Yudam-ni (on the reservoir's western shore) on the 27th. At the same time, on the opposite side of the reservoir, three battalions of the 7th Division were destroyed. Pushed back from Yudam-ni, the Marines began their "advance to the sea" along what was basically a single narrow road. By December 11, the Marines, along with a mixture of men from the 7th Division, the Royal Marines, and various ROK units, were back at Hamhung-Hungnam, north of Wonsan. The battles around the reservoir and during the "breakout" cost the UN troops, mainly Marines, some 6,000 casualties of the 25,000 men involved. Heavy as they were, these casualties would have been greater had it not been for the work of FEAF, Navy, and Marine aircraft. Planes from TF77 and the 1st Marine Air wing handled most of the close support, while FEAF aircraft struck further afield.
But it was in the supply and evacuation efforts that the Air Force really shone. Combat Cargo Command's entire airdrop system had been geared to handle only 70 tons a day. By Herculean exertion, this amount was bumped up to 250 tons a day. In addition to supply missions, Cargo Command planes evacuated almost 5,000 ill or wounded troops. Between December 11 and 24, 105,000 troops and 98,000 North Korean civilians, along with 350,000 tons of supplies and more than 17,000 vehicles were evacuated from Hungnam. Fortunately, the Chinese (who were in serious straits themselves) did not interfere with the evacuation.
By the middle of December, the UN forces held a line running from the Imjin River on the west generally along the 38th parallel to the East Coast. About this time UN members began efforts to arrange a cease-fire. These attempts floundered when the Chinese, flushed with their success, rejected the proposals. Nevertheless, the UN continued to work toward obtaining a cease-fire.
December also saw changes in the command structure in Korea. General Walker was killed in a jeep accident and was replaced by Lt. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgeway. The new Eighth Army commander's initial encounter with the enemy was not auspicious. On New Year's Eve, CCF and North Korean troops attacked again. Although they suffered terrible losses, the enemy pushed the defenders back to roughly the 37th Parallel. This, however, was as far south as the Eighth Army would go.
Because of their losses and because their supply and transportation system could not sustain it, the Communist offensive faltered, then stopped. The CCF's usual practice was to advance, attack, withdraw for supply, and then repeat the procedure. And this was what occurred now. But Ridgeway was perhaps more aggressive than Walker, and he decided to take advantage of the enemy withdrawal by launching a reconnaissance in force. A limited offensive began in late January and by February 16, the UN forces were back on the outskirts of Seoul and holding a line midway between the 37th and 38th Parallels.
This "limited" offensive grew and by April 9, Seoul was retaken and the front lines now ran generally southwest to northeast above the 38th Parallel. Both Ridgeway and MacArthur had no illusions that the Chinese would retreat much farther, particularly from their main staging area bounded by the towns of Chorwon, Pyonggang, and Kumhwa, an area which became notorious as the "Iron Triangle." Ridgeway thus readied contingency plans to repel another Chinese offensive, plans that indeed became necessary to use.
As the UN troops moved north, the U.S. government prepared further cease-fire overtures to the Communists, to which MacArthur was notified. The Supreme Commander suddenly undercut these plans on March 24, 1951, when he issued an ultimatum to the Chinese (without informing his superiors) that the war would be extended to the mainland unless they negotiated a peace settlement. This "routine communiqué," as MacArthur later described it, resulted in several far-reaching consequences: by virtually taunting and challenging the Chinese, MacArthur undoubtedly ensured their continuing participation in the war; his ultimatum torpedoed Truman's cease-fire, for the President could hardly announce this when his commander in Korea was publicly intimating carrying the war to the Chinese mainland; he added fuel to a smoldering distrust by some UN allies about American policy in Korea; and it finally brought him down. Truman relieved MacArthur on April 9 and replaced him as UNC/FEC commander with Ridgeway.
Then, as Ridgeway had believed, a resupplied and refreshed Chinese Army renewed its attacks on April 22. The fighting was bitter and intense but the offensive had little effect. The enemy lost almost half of their men and the Eighth Army recovered all its lost ground and even extended its gains in the eastern portion of the line. Eventually, the front settled down to a line winding from below Kaesong on the west to above Kansong on the shore of the Sea of Japan.
Despite MacArthur's attempt to develop national policy himself, the quest for a cease-fire had gone on, and on July 10, 1951, negotiators from both sides met at Kaesong, and later at Panmunjom, to thrash out an agenda for an armistice. It took two years to accomplish this and during this time some of the bloodiest fighting of the war took place, fighting reminiscent of the positional, trench warfare of World War I. But finally, on July 27, 1953, an armistice agreement was signed and the Korean War was over. This "limited" war had been exceedingly bloody but a full accounting of the casualties will never be known. It has been estimated that military casualties on both sides were approximately 2.4 million, while another two million civilians were casualties. These civilian figures actually may be conservative. The United States suffered 36,686 men killed and another 103,284 wounded.
The war in the air was also bloody. FEAF lost 1,466 planes out of a total of 1,986 UN aircraft destroyed. 1,041 of these total losses were in combat. The always dangerous flak claimed the most aircraft, 816 (most of these on ground attack missions), while 147 were lost in air-to-air combat. FEAF also had 1,841 casualties, including 1,180 dead. In the process of sustaining these losses, FEAF units flew almost 721,000 sorties and delivered 476,000 tons of ordnance. Among the equipment claimed destroyed by UN aircraft were 976 planes (including 792 MiG-15s), 1,327 tanks, and 89,920 vehicles. Some 184,800 enemy troops were also claimed killed. On the other side, the Soviets claimed 510 UN aircraft shot down in just the first year of the war and a total of 1,300 during the entire war. They acknowledge the loss of 345 MiG-15s.
Now I would like to discuss some specific air operations - air superiority, interdiction, close air support, and finally, what has been described as air pressure operations. FEAF's first task was air superiority. The first shots in the fight for air superiority were fired on June 29, 1950, with the attack on the Pyongyang Airfield. FEAF later estimated that air superiority was won by July 20, and air supremacy by the end of August.* Although gaining air superiority proved relatively easy, maintaining it was more grueling. Throughout the war the airfields on the other side of the Yalu were untouchable, although there were instances where they did receive some attention, supposedly inadvertently. Then, the appearance of the MiG-15 in November 1950 resulted in a whole new ball game. The following month the Communists began a concerted effort to regain control of the air.
A major reason for this effort was that as long as they were denied operations from North Korea, they would be unable to protect their ground forces, a vital necessity if they were to win the war. Most of the MiG airfields were located in the Antung region, just across the Yalu from Sinuiju. The area of northwest Korea where the MiGs operated soon became known as "MiG Alley." In 1951, the Communists made determined efforts to establish airfields in North Korea, primarily in the area from Sinuiju to the Chongchon River, but F-86 Sabres (which were always in short supply; FEAF had only 89 F-86As in June 1951 and just 132 F-86E/F fighter-bombers and 165 F-86E/F fighter-interceptors in July 1953) fought off the MiGs while B-29s and F-84s prevented the Communists from reestablishing the airfields. But in October of the year, when new bases near the Chongchon were made operational, the MiGs destroyed several B-29s, forcing the bombers to resort to night operations.
With the advantages of initiative, proximity of airfields close to the combat zone, a marked superiority in numbers, and a light-frame aircraft powered by a high-thrust engine (the MiG-15), the Communists should have been able to wrest away air superiority from the Americans. Yet they never did, testimony to the skill and aggressiveness of, primarily, the Sabre pilots. Too, the Soviets utilized their units differently than did the Americans. Throughout the war the Soviets rotated entire units, leaving no "old heads" to show newcomers the ropes. Each new unit had to learn all over again, leading to heavy losses as they gained experience. By May 1953, two more F-86 wings were available as well as more of the new F-86F models. These additions finally enabled FEAF to more actively seek out the enemy. Some of the fiercest fighting of the air war, and some of the greatest victories by the Sabre pilots, occurred from May to July 1953. In fact, the one-day record for kills in the war (16 MiGs by the Sabres) was on June 30, 1953, less than a month before the armistice.
FEAF's second task was interdiction. On July 9, 1950, Gen. Stratemeyer directed FEAF Bomber Command to begin an interdiction campaign against enemy lines of communication from the Han River to the Yalu. The deteriorating ground situation, however, caused MacArthur to order FEAF to use its aircraft, including B-29s, more in a close support role. It was not until July 28 that FEAF was able to implement its interdiction plan. For the entire war, interdiction and armed reconnaissance accounted for 48 percent of FEAF's combat sorties. North Korean prisoners of war later said that air attacks had destroyed more than 70 percent of their tanks, vehicles, and artillery pieces in South Korea, as well as inflicting almost 50 percent of their casualties. MacArthur, though, gave more credit for breaking the back of the North Korean invasion to the landings at Inchon than to either FEAF's interdiction campaign or the Eighth Army's strong defense of the Pusan Perimeter.
When enemy supply lines shortened as the UN forces drove toward the Yalu, FEAF's interdiction efforts were less effective. The Chinese soldier, especially, could exist on a lot less supplies than could the American soldier. (A 1951 joint Army-Air Force study estimated that a Communist division of about 10,000 men needed only 48 tons of supplies per day, compared to the 500 tons per day required to supply a 16,000-man U.S. division. On a per-man basis, Americans needed about six times more supplies than the enemy did.) The Chinese soldier was taught to use captured weapons and equipment as much as possible because this freed the Communist supply trains to bring more-needed items. Because his army still was not very mechanized, the Chinese and Korean soldier was used to carrying his own supplies. A single man could carry almost 80 pounds on his own back for long distances over rough terrain. The enemy was also extremely energetic in their capacity to keep the lines of communication open. Some examples: They built multiple parallel bridges to decrease the effectiveness of FEAF's bridge-busters. Usually they would build four such bypasses but in one case, the Rail Bridge across the Yalu at Sinuiju, they built eight bypasses. They built bridges that were just a few inches under the water, and used removable bridge spans to prevent recon flights from detecting the repaired bridges. They were able generally to repair key bridges in about two days. In Europe during World War II, it took several weeks to accomplish the same results, if at all.
Their ability to repair road and rail cuts was no less impressive. Men were stationed at close intervals along roads and railways and they were able to make road repairs (without heavy equipment) almost overnight. A standard rail cut could be repaired in two to six hours and major cuts could be repaired in four to seven days. It was these Herculean efforts that helped to keep the interdiction campaign from being fully successful.
Three major interdiction campaigns were conducted in Korea. One was named Saturate, and the other two had the same name, Strangle. This latter name was an unfortunate choice because it intimated that aircraft would completely shut down the enemy supply routes. When this didn't happen, Air Force detractors seized upon the name as proof that airpower could not deliver the "goods," and that aircraft would always be secondary to ground forces.
Actually, Strangle was not intended to completely shut down the movement of supplies to the front lines. It was intended to "interfere with and disrupt the enemy's lines of communications to such an extent that he will be unable to mount a sustained major offensive himself." Both interdiction campaigns got off to good starts. The first Strangle, which began on May 31, 1951, was directed at the enemy's road system, and was designed to accompany the UN counterattack toward the 38th Parallel. But when the Eighth Army reached its objectives in mid-June and slackened the pressure on the Communists, Strangle's effectiveness waned. In July, when it became apparent that the Communists were not worrying about the ground offensive and were using more men to keep the roads open, Strangle petered out.
The second Strangle began on august 18, 1951, and was directed at the railway system. Again, initial results were encouraging but the enemy quickly reacted with increased numbers of antiaircraft guns along the tracks, increased activity by the MiGs against the bombers (which drove the bombers to less-effective night raids), and increased repair efforts. Also, the attempts by the Communists to build airfields in North Korea resulted in many rail missions being diverted to attack the fields instead. Thus, by December, Strangle II also dwindled away.
The third interdiction campaign, Saturate, was planned to be a more continual endeavor, with missions flown both day and night, and with the attacks concentrated into smaller target areas. Saturate ran from March 3, 1952 to mid-May of the same year. Heavy enemy defenses, coupled with a lack of fighter-bombers (instead of 75 assigned aircraft each, the two main fighter-bomber units in Saturate had only 80 total aircraft), caused the operation to swiftly lose effectiveness just as the two Strangle's had.
Air interdiction in Korea succeeded up to a point, but it was not as successful as was hoped. Several factors were responsible for this. One was that night interdiction was generally unsuccessful because of the lack of proper aircraft, instrumentation, and bomb weight and bomb types, particularly delayed action bombs. Another was the enemy's capability for rapid repairs, along with the antiaircraft defenses they deployed along the roads and rail lines. A third reason was that at this point the war was stalemated. Although brief periods of fighting occurred, too often the enemy was able to choose when he wanted to fight and when he wanted to rest and resupply.
FEAF's third task, and the most contentious and complex, was close air support. The close air support doctrine and techniques used in Korea were rooted in World War II. The 1946 Field Manual 31-35, "Air-Ground Operations," distilled the lessons from the war (primarily from Ninth Air Force operations in Europe). In September 1950, the Army Field Forces and TAC jointly issued a "Joint Training Directive for Air-Ground Operations," which elaborated on the earlier manual. However, neither service ever accepted the directive as policy. And, frankly, the Air Force was not that interested in CAS, claiming that interdiction missions would be more successful than CAS in the long run. The Army, however, continued to insist on CAS, since its troops usually could not see the results of interdiction attacks.
The entire air-ground system in Korea was initially somewhat ad hoc, with improvised units handling this task. General Partridge, realized this would not work over a long period, and organized a Joint Operations Center (JOC), located next to Eighth Army headquarters. (The JOC never really was "joint," for the Army supplied only a few lower-ranking individuals to work in it, and the Navy maintained only a liaison officer to it until very late in the war.) Partridge also sent tactical air control parties to Army regiments and higher headquarters, and provided men and equipment to operate the Eighth Army's tactical air-request communications net. The jet aircraft used for tactical air support, usually flying from Japan, could not operate over the front lines long enough to be effective. So, Partridge organized an airborne controller squadron flying unarmed T-6 aircraft to locate targets and direct the jets. The T-6 unit soon became famous as the "Mosquitos" and were very effective.
In the spring of 1951, the Mosquito squadron was expanded to a tactical air control group, with two airborne squadrons and one ground squadron. This latter squadron provided the enlisted men and radio jeeps, while the tactical air wings supplied pilots to serve as forward air controllers. Centralized control (through the JOC) of CAS missions remained in effect throughout the war and proved to be very flexible in handling both prop and jet aircraft and in reacting to emergency situations. Still, not everyone believed the Air Force's methods of providing CAS were the proper ones.
One of the most vocal critics was Gen. Almond (who, by the way, was a student at the Air Corps Tactical School in 1938-39). Almond, an especially arrogant and abrasive individual, was not particularly well liked nor respected outside his own close-knit coterie of staffers. Unfortunately, he believed he knew more about close air support than any Air Force officer. He became especially enamored of the Marines version of CAS. Whereas the Army placed heavy reliance on artillery and saw aircraft operating outside artillery range, the Marines (who were usually light in artillery support) viewed air power as integral to their offensive operations. Because CAS was a routine to the Marines, they placed forward air observers in each battalion and maintained aircraft on "air alert" or in "cab ranks" almost continually during daylight hours. The Air Force believed this method to be wasteful of air assets and preferred to keep aircraft on "stripe alert." This method usually worked because the Army could take any target it could see under fire and targets farther away were not yet dangerous to the frontline troops because of the distance, and these could be handled by aircraft.
But the idea of aircraft on call at all times, or even better, a corps commander having operational control over a force equivalent to one air group per division (which is what Almond sought) proved irresistible to some Army commanders. Throughout the war Almond was a constant source of irritation to Stratemeyer, Partridge, and other senior FEAF officers as he kept trying to gain control over air units. Luckily, MacArthur liked Stratemeyer, and later FEAF commanders continued his positive association with Ridgway and Clark, which helped blunt most of the actions from Almond's continual meddling.
During the war, FEAF aircraft flew 57,665 close support sorties out of a total of 720,980 sorties. Of the Marines 107,303 total sorties, almost one-third were flown as CAS. The Navy's sortie numbers were not broken out by mission, but it has been estimated that the Navy flew approximately 35,000 CAS sorties. These are impressive numbers but they cannot hide the fact that at the end of the war the questions of what were the proper methods to accomplish CAS and of who should command the forces for this support had not been answered.
Finally, let's look at air power as more of a political weapon through the use of a strategy known as air pressure. By early 1952, with the war stalemated, FEAF recognized that conventional tactical air operations were no longer appropriate. Therefore, a new operational policy was formulated to enable FEAF to maintain pressure on the Communists so that the UN forces could obtain the most favorable results during the armistice negotiations. Air Superiority remained primary, but then FEAF was to execute, as Lt. Gen. Otto P. "Opie" Weyland (FEAF's Commander since June 1951) stated, "the maximum amount of selected destruction, thus making the Korean Conflict as costly as possible to the enemy in terms of equipment, supplies, and personnel." Weyland hoped this new air strategy would hurt the Soviets and Chinese through the loss of the equipment they were supplying the North Koreans.
This strategy was not adopted until Gen. Mark Clark arrived in May 1952 to become the UN/FEC Commander. Like Weyland, Clark favored a more aggressive approach toward the Communists, although restrictions still affected how they could operate. Air power really was the only way to maintain effective pressure without incurring acceptable loss of life. The first targets of this air pressure strategy were the North Korean hydroelectric plants. All of the major plants, except for the Suiho facility on the Yalu, were targeted initially, but Suiho quickly joined the list. FEAF planned that the first attacks would take place over a two-day period, reducing the time the enemy could react. Actually, the strikes took four days.
They began on June 23, 1952, with Fifth Air Force and Navy planes hitting the Suiho plant. Interestingly, some 160 MiGs based across the river at Antung fled to the interior of Manchuria during these strikes instead of putting up any resistance. The attacks continued until the 27th, and when they were over, more than 90 percent of North Korea's electric power complex was inoperable. Despite intense repair efforts by Soviet and Chinese technicians, North Korea suffered an almost complete electrical blackout for more than two weeks. The effects of the Suiho raids were even felt deep into Manchuria, where industries also relied on the power generated by the Suiho plant.
However, these attacks caused worldwide repercussions. A number of countries publicly denounced the bombings, thus mitigating the effects of the bombings and causing the Communists to take heart that the war in Korea would remain limited. The waning days of the war saw another target complex become the focus of air attacks. These targets were the North Korean irrigation dams. Rice was the Communist soldier's staple and approximately 20 dams held back the water used to irrigate the rice crops. Destroying these dams could release floods that could potentially destroy a year's rice planting.
Not everyone was eager to destroy these dams, feeling that the attacks would be construed as attacks on civilians. Weyland was also skeptical of the attacks, not only from a humanitarian standpoint but also as to their feasibility. Nonetheless, he decided to make a few raids as a test. On May 13, 1953, 59 F-84s struck and breached the Toksan Dam. The ensuing flood washed out miles of railroad tracks and highways, destroying five bridges, and swamped five square miles of rice crops. The Chasan Dam received the same treatment on May 15-16, and the floodwaters again destroyed miles of rice crops, bridges, roads, and tracks. Weyland later said these attacks were "perhaps the most spectacular of the war." General Clark was also jubilant, telling the JCS that the breaching had "been as effective as weeks of rail interdiction."
B-29 attacks on the Kuwonga Dam on the nights of May 21-22, and May 29, were not as successful. Although four direct hits were scored on the first strike and another five on the second, too much time elapsed between the two attacks. In the interim, the Communists reduced the water level, which made the dam walls too thick to breach on the second raid. Nevertheless, the reservoir had to be drained before repairs could be made and the rice fields didn't get any water during that period.
These attacks, along with the continuing missions against conventional targets throughout North Korea, helped to push the Communists into finally signing the armistice. The Air Force's last missions over North Korea took place on July 27, with the last bombs dropped by FEAF aircraft released just 25 minutes before the armistice became effective.
For most of the Korean War, FEC/UNC's strategy focused on winning the war through the operations of the ground forces. It was not until the last year of the conflict that air power was, perhaps, taken more seriously as the way to end the stalemated war. Indeed, it appears that air power did play a much more important role than was anticipated or was even given credit for by either the Army or the surface Navy.
Produced by the Air Force History and Museum Program
THE KOREAN AIR WAR