USAF – Korean War

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War Begins

During May 1950, KMAG reported a military buildup on the northern side of the 38th parallel. At four o’clock on the morning of June 25, 1950, these forces invaded, crossing the 38th parallel and brushing aside the inferior South Korean army. The main invading force headed toward Seoul, the South Korean capital, about 35 miles below the parallel, while smaller forces moved down the center of the Korean peninsula and along the east coast. The North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) took Seoul, whereupon President Harry S. Truman ordered General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the U. S. Far East Command, to supply the ROK with equipment and ammunition, because most supplies had been abandoned in the retreat of ROK forces.

USAF elements were the first U. S. military units to respond to the invasion. By the afternoon of June 25, North Korean fighters attacked South Korean and USAF aircraft and facilities at Seoul airfield and Kimpo AB, just south of the capital. On June 26, FAR EAST AIR FORCES (FEAF) fighters provided protective cover while ships evacuated American nationals from Inchon, 20 miles west of Seoul. On June 27, as the communists closed in on Seoul, FEAF transports evacuated more Americans, and FIFTH AIR FORCE fighters, escorting the evacuation transports, shot down three North Korean MiGs— the first aerial victories of the war.

The U. S. delegation to the United Nations secured a Security Council resolution that UN members assist the ROK. Armed with this, President Truman mobilized U. S. air and naval forces. On June 28, FEAF, under the command of Lieutenant General George E. Stratemeyer, began flying interdiction missions between Seoul and the 38th parallel, photo-reconnaissance and weather missions over South Korea, airlift missions from Japan to Korea, and CLOSE AIR SUPPORT missions for the ROK troops. On June 29, the 3rd Bombardment Group made the first American air raid on North Korea, bombing the airfield at Pyongyang, and FEAF Bomber Command followed with sporadic B-29 missions against North Korean targets through July. At last, in August, major B-29 raids were launched against North Korean marshaling yards, railroad bridges, and supply dumps.

U. S. ground forces were committed to war on June 30, 1950. On July 7, the UN established an allied command under President Truman, who named General MacArthur as UN commander in chief. In the meantime, the 5AF, under Major General Earl E. Partridge, established an advanced headquarters in Taegu, South Korea, 140 miles southeast of Seoul, also the location of Eighth Army headquarters. However, during this early period of the war, most FEAF bombers and fighters operated from bases in Japan, which was a major disadvantage in flying short-range F-80 jet aircraft. Nevertheless, USAF pilots worked in concert with carrier-launched naval aircraft to attack enemy airfields, destroying much of the small North Korean air force on the ground. Before the end of July, USAF and navy and marine air units claimed air superiority over North and South Korea.

By August 5, the relentless retreat of UN ground forces had stopped, and FEAF air support, effective ground action, and the unsupportable lengthening of North Korean supply lines ended the communist offensive. The UN troops held a defensive perimeter in the southeastern corner of the peninsula, in a 40- to 60-mile arc about the seaport of Pusan. Holding the Pusan perimeter required careful coordination between ground action and close air support.

UN Forces Take the Offensive

Beginning on September 15, 1950, UN forces assumed the offensive when the U.S. X Corps made a spectacular amphibious assault landing at Inchon, 150 miles north of the battle front. In the south, the U.S. Eighth Army (including U.S., ROK, and British forces) counterattacked on September 16. The 5AF provided close air support, while, far to the north, FEAF bombed Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, and Wonsan, an east coast port 80 miles north of the 38th parallel. U. S. Marines retook Kimpo AB on September 17. On the 19th, the first FEAF cargo aircraft landed there. From this point on, the AIRLIFT of supplies, fuel, and troops would be virtually continuous. Air controllers accompanied advancing Eighth Army tank columns to support tank commanders with aerial reconnaissance and to call in close air support. Seoul was recaptured on September 26, and, on September 28, fighter-bombers returned permanently to Taegu. Engineers also rebuilt other airfields, beginning with Pohang, on the east coast 50 miles northeast of Taegu, and, on October 7, USAF flying units returned to Pohang and to other rebuilt airfields at Kimpo and at Suwon, 20 miles south of Seoul. The ability to operate from bases in Korea greatly increased the effectiveness of the limited-range jet fighters.

On October 9, UN forces took the war into North Korea when the Eighth Army crossed the 38th parallel near Kaesong. American and South Korean forces entered Pyongyang on October 19 while FEAF B-29s and B-26s continued to bomb transport lines and military targets in North Korea, 401 and B-26s, F-51s, and F-80s provided close air support to the advancing ground troops. FEAF also continuously supplied photo reconnaissance, airlift, and air medical evacuation.

On the east coast of Korea in the meantime, ROK forces crossed the 38th parallel on October 1 and captured Wonsan on October 11. On October 26 South Korean forces reached the Yalu River, the border with China, at Chosan, 120 miles north of Pyongyang.

Chinese Intervention

On the night of November 25, 1950, Chinese forces, in great strength, attacked the Eighth Army on its center and right. Two days later, even more powerful Chinese attacks overran units of X Corps on its left flank. By November 28, UN positions were caving in as about 300,000 Chinese troops entered North Korea.

UN troops rapidly withdrew, and even UN air superiority vanished as Soviet-built Chinese MiG-15 jet fighters easily outflew U. S. piston-driven craft. By December 15, UN forces had withdrawn all the way to the 38th parallel and were now establishing a defensive line across the breadth of the Korean peninsula.

5AF provided close air support to cover the withdrawal, and U. S. F-80s did their best against the Chinese MiG-15s. During November, FEAF medium and light bombers, along with U. S. Navy aircraft, attacked bridges over the Yalu River and supply centers along the Korean side of the river —operations severely hampered by orders to avoid violating Chinese air space. Despite the handicap, on November 25, bombers destroyed key bridges, but the communists responded by rapidly erecting pontoon bridges. As winter set in, they also crossed the ice of the frozen Yalu. B-29 raids were effective against North Korean supply dumps, however.

In response to the introduction of Chinese MiG-15s, USAF commanders requested and received rush consignments of the newest and best jet fighters. On December 6, the 27th Fighter-Escort Wing, flying F-84 Thunderjets, arrived at Taegu. On December 15, the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing flew its first mission in Korea using the most advanced aircraft, the F-86 Sabre. It was the timely introduction of the Sabres that allowed UN forces to regain and maintain air superiority.

As 1950 came to a close, FEAF flew interdiction and armed reconnaissance missions to slow the advancing Chinese. 5AF pilots killed or wounded some 33,000 enemy troops during December, forcing the Chinese to move only by night. Yet the communist advance continued, and, on January 1, 1951, Chinese forces crossed the 38th parallel. They entered Seoul three days later. On January 15 UN forces halted the Chinese and North Korean armies 50 miles south of the 38th parallel, on a line from Pyongtaek on the west coast to Samchok on the east coast.

UN Counteroffensive

UN forces began a counteroffensive on January 25, 1951, with the object of wearing down the overextended enemy. On February 10, Kimpo AB was again recaptured, and, when thawing roads made ground transport impossible, the 315th Air Division airdropped supplies to the ground forces. UN forces reoccupied Seoul on March 14. On the 23rd, FEAF airlift forces dropped a reinforced regiment at Munsan, 25 miles north of Seoul.

Up north, between the Chongchon and Yalu rivers, communist forces established an air presence so formidable that 5AF pilots called the region “MiG Alley.” By March 10, Sabres were fighting in MiG Alley while also escorting FEAF B-29 attacks against area targets. From April 12 to 23 the FEAF bombers attacked rebuilt airfields on the outskirts of Pyongyang. By this time, Eighth Army ground units had regained the 38th parallel. Between April 17 and 21, with close air support, ground units penetrated beyond the 38th parallel.

Communist Chinese Spring Offensive

On April 22, 1951, Chinese forces began a new offensive with an assault on ROK army positions 40 to 55 miles northeast of Seoul. U. S. Army and marine forces, in concert with British ground troops, stopped the new communist drive by May 1. Two weeks later, however, the Chinese and North Koreans attacked near Taepo, between the east coast and Chunchon, 45 miles northeast of Seoul. The advance was halted by May 20, and, on May 22, UN Command (now under the overall direction of General Matthew Bunker Ridgway, who had replaced General MacArthur—removed by President Truman for insubordination) launched a counterattack. FEAF and navy fliers maintained air superiority during this period by means of aerial combat and continual bombing of North Korean airfields. The 5AF and a U. S. Marine air wing extended airfield attacks on May 9 to include Sinuiju airfield in the northwest corner of Korea. The attacks were devastating to communist air power in the region.

General Stratemeyer, FEAF commander, suf- fered a heart attack in May 1951, and Lieutenant General O. P. Weyland took over FEAF. Through- out most of this period, Chinese pilots stayed on the Manchurian side of the Yalu River, but, on May 20, 50 MiGs engaged 36 Sabres in aerial combat. It was during this fight that Captain J AMES J ABARA shot down two MiGs, which, added to his four prior kills, made him the first jet ace in aviation history.

FEAF, marine, and navy air forces coordinated carefully to help force the North Koreans and Chinese to restrict their movements and attacks to periods of darkness and bad weather. FEAF also supplemented sealift with airlift during this period. In late May, FEAF began Operation Strangle to interdict the flow of communist supplies south of the 39th parallel, and, in June, the campaign was extended to attacks against railroads.

Negotiations Begin

In July 1951, delegations began cease-fire negotiations at Kaesong, North Korea, on the 38th parallel. During these talks, UN forces continued pushing the communist troops northward, until, by July 8, the front had returned to the 38th parallel.

Negotiations formally began on July 10, 1951, and broke down on August 23, whereupon the UN Command launched an offensive in central Korea. FEAF settled in for a war of attrition and devoted much effort to rebuilding and improving its Korean airfields. Beginning late in July, the Chinese air force conducted an air campaign to challenge UN air superiority. In September they targeted the 5AF, whose pilots, however, shot down 14 MiGs, while suffering 6 losses.

Despite U. S. victories, the Chinese air offensive forced the 5AF to suspend fighter-bomber inter- diction in MiG Alley until the winter. During this period, UN air command concentrated on railroad targets outside of MiG Alley and on new North Korean airfields. These raids proved unsuccessful. However, on November 12, 1951, truce negotiations resumed, now at Panmunjom, and UN ground forces ceased offensive action, settling into a war of containment.


While negotiations dragged on, the USAF received more F-86 Sabres to counter the Chinese air force. Beginning in December 1951, members of the 51st and 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wings downed 26 MiGs in two weeks, breaking the back of the Chinese air offensive. For the rest of the winter, MiG pilots generally avoided aerial combat. Despite this, pilots of the 5AF destroyed 127 communist aircraft in aerial combat between January and April 1952. USAF losses were only nine planes. 5AF B-29 raids also continued during this period. However, during the winter of 1951–52, with battle lines static, the need for the close air support mission was greatly diminished. USAF commanders concentrated instead on aerial bombardment of enemy positions alternating on a daily basis with artillery attacks on those same positions. The communist response was to dig in, rendering both aerial and artillery bombardment fairly ineffective.

In an effort to end the stalemate at Panmunjom, UN air commanders resolved to attack targets previously exempted or underexploited. Accordingly, in May 1952 the 5AF shifted from interdiction of transportation to attacks on supply depots and industrial targets. Beginning on June 23, U. S. Navy and 5AF units also made coordinated attacks on the electric power complex at Sui-ho Dam, on the Yalu River near Sinuiju, followed by strikes against the Chosin, Fusen, and Kyosen power plants. On July 11, Pyongyang was bombed by aircraft of the Seventh Fleet, the 1st Marine Air Wing, the 5AF, the British Navy, and the ROK air force. At night, FEAF sent in B-29s. Allied air forces returned to Pyongyang again on August 29 and 30, and, in September, 5AF attacked troop concentrations and barracks in northwest Korea, while FEAF bombed similar targets near Hamhung in north- east Korea.

During the summer of 1952, many F-86Es were upgraded to more powerful and more maneuver able F-86Fs. MiG activity increased during August and September, but U. S. pilots achieved an 8-to-1 ratio of victories to losses.

Despite the pressure of the air campaign, the Panmunjom talks produced nothing, and the war entered its third winter.

Continued Stalemate

While the stalemate continued, USAF Sabre pilots continued to shoot down MiGs, even though they were generally outnumbered and flew aircraft that were still technically inferior to the MiG-15, at least at high altitude. On February 18, 1953, near the Sui-ho Reservoir on the Yalu River, four F-86Fs attacked 48 MiGs, shot down two, and caused two others to crash while taking evasive action. All four Sabres returned safely to base.

The success of 5AF Sabres was not matched by that of the aging B-29s of FEAF Bomber Command. The big bombers increasingly fell victim to interceptor and antiaircraft artillery attacks at night. Missions were curtailed, although important industrial targets continued to be targeted.

In the spring of 1953, a POW exchange agreement broke the stalemate at Panmunjom, and productive talks continued.

The War Winds Down

During the renewed talks, the communists sought to improve their position with a major assault on June 10 against the ROK II Corps near Kumsong, a small town in central Korea. In combating this offensive, FEAF flew a record-breaking 7,032 sorties, mostly to deliver close air support. When the offensive was renewed, FEAF flew another 12,000 combat sorties, again mostly in close air support.

During the offensives, the 315th Air Division airlifted an Army regiment (3,252 soldiers and 1,770 tons of cargo) from Japan to Korea, and, from June 28 through July 2, airlifters flew almost 4,000 more troops and over 1,200 tons of cargo from Misawa and Tachikawa air bases in Japan to Pusan and Taegu airfields in Korea. These were the last major airlift operations of the Korean conflict. During May, June, and July 1953, Sabre pilots achieved 165 aerial victories with only three losses—a magnificent achievement.

The war ended not in victory or defeat, but with the armistice of July 27, 1953. The number of Chinese and North Korean troops killed is unknown, but estimates range between 1.5 and 2 million, in addition to at least a million civilians killed. South Korean civilian casualties probably equaled those of North Korea. United States losses were 142,091 casualties, including 33,629 deaths and 7,140 captured. USAF losses were fairly light, 1,841 casualties including 379 killed in action, 11 deaths from wounds, and 821 missing in action and presumed dead. In addition, 224 fliers were captured.

UN and U.S. action in the Korean War did succeed in confining communist rule to North Korea, but, beyond this, the conflict ended inconclusively.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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