Lt A.E. Helseth, a young American U.S. Air Force pilot with barely 200 hours of Mustang flight time in his logbook, was flying in a section of Republic of Korea Air Force F-51s led by Major Dean Hess on the afternoon of July 10th 1950. Lt. Helseth was one of a group of American volunteer pilots serving with the ROKAF in the early days of the Korean War. The small force was heading for Chonan when Helseth realized that his radio was not working. At the same moment he happened to spot two North Korean tanks on a road below and tried without success to attract the attention of the others in his flight. He then broke away from the formation, dove and attacked one of the tanks.
After putting his target out of action, he became lost and looked around for a landmark he recognized. Instead, he found and proceeded to shoot up nine trucks and a half-track as he followed the road south. Still lost, and rapidly running out of fuel, Helseth chose to belly-land the Mustang before lack of fuel would force him down. As he approached the town of Haedong, he spotted what appeared to be a park and safely set the fighter down on the grass. That had been the easy part of the mission. Walking and hitchhiking back to his base at Taegu took him the next five days.
Spearheaded by masses of Russian-built T-34 tanks, units of the North Korean army rolled across the 38th parallel in an assault against Kaesong and Chunchon in South Korea on the morning of Sunday, June 25th 1950. As the Japanese had done less than a decade earlier at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the North Koreans chose to attack on a Sunday morning, when any response or resistance was likely to be minimal.
The Second World War had ended less than five years before this outbreak of new hostilities in Asia. On that June Sunday, 897 F-51 and thirty-eight RF-51 Mustang fighters remained in the U.S. Air Force active inventory. A further 764 Mustangs were then being operated by the U.S. Air National Guard. The F-51Ds had sufficient supplies of spare parts, so they were chosen to go back to war and again, as in 1942, they went in a close-support role.
The first Mustangs to enter combat in the Korean Conflict, as it was then known, were the F-82 Twin Mustangs of the 68th and 339th All-Weather Fighter Squadrons. Ed Schmued: “Many people think the F-82 is nothing but two P-51 fuselages joined together by the wing. This is not the case. It was a completely new design. Nothing of the P-51, except the design principles and powerplant group, was used on this new venture. All the things that were good on the P-51 were also applied here. We developed designs of a low-cost trainer, low-cost fighter, and of a twin-fuselage fighter. We built a mock-up to find out if the off-center position of the pilot in a rapid roll would affect the two crewmen in any way. We found that there was no effect whatsoever. The pilot always had the feeling that the ship was rotating around his own fuselage.”
On June 27th, F-82s shot down three enemy Yak-9 fighters, in the first Korean air combat action by the Americans. On the 29th, ten F-51Ds were assigned to protect Suwon Airfield, where General Douglas MacArthur was arriving to take command of the defense of South Korea. The Mustangs were led by Dean Hess and, as MacArthur watched, four enemy planes attacked the airfield and were all shot down by the American fighters.
U.S. President Harry Truman directed in late June that the American 5th Air Force achieve air superiority, isolate the battlefield through interdiction, and provide close air support for the ground forces. Getting qualified Mustang pilots to Korea, however, was proving a bigger problem than getting Mustangs there.
By July F-51D Mustangs of the US Air Force from Japan, from the Royal Australian Air Force and from the South African Air Force, were all operating in Korea on tactical reconnaissance and ground support tasks.
Collectively, they accounted for the downing of nineteen enemy propeller-driven planes and twenty-eight enemy aircraft on the ground. In July the Mustangs based at Taegu and Po’hang carried the load for the Allied forces in those early days of the conflict.
In the early months of the Korean War, accidents and mechanical troubles were responsible for several Mustang losses among the ROKAF units. In late December two such events occurred. Lt James Gillespie suffered engine failure and had to bail out of his F-51 near the front lines. An American infantry patrol located him and got him back to his base within two days. In another incident that week, Captain George Metcalf experienced engine trouble that same week while taking off from his base at Taejon and crash-landed near the end of the runway, injuring his back and suffering facial cuts. Both of these incidents resulted from fuel contamination, water in the fuel lines.
Only two days later Metcalf was flying an armed reconnaissance mission when his flight was asked to provide cover for the rescue of a downed pilot. The Mustangs came under heavy anti-aircraft fire as they dove to strafe enemy soldiers near the location of the friendly pilot. The soldiers were attempting to reach and capture the pilot and, as Metcalf pulled up from a strafing pass, ground fire struck his F-51, blasting nearly three feet from the leading edge of one wing and damaging one aileron. Firmly bracing himself against the cockpit structure, he had to keep unremitting pressure on th stick and rudder to hold the Mustang in a controlled flight attitude. When the airspeed of the damaged fighter fell to near 250 mph, Metcalf felt the plane approaching a stall. He was forced to land the aircraft at high speed to maintain directional control, but brought it in safely.
Not all of the hazards faced by Mustang pilots in Korea were mechanical or directly combat-related. In the colder months especially, they had to contend with icing at relatively low altitudes from which recovery was nearly always impossible when the over-loaded aeroplane entered a stall or spin. Their Mustangs were not equipped with deicing systems and accumulating wing ice was a virtual death sentence for the pilots flying these ground support missions in winter. In addition to the threats they met in the air, the Mustang pilots had to cope with more mundane, but equally challenging situations on the ground. Shelter and living conditions on their bases were primitive and miserable. The brutal cold of the Korean winter caused a few airmen to rig some less than reliable heating arrangements involving oil and 100 octane aviation gas, and resulting in some serious fires, explosions and loss of life.
335 F-51D Mustangs were lost in the Korean War, with 264 pilots killed or missing. Of these losses, 172 fell to enemy ground fire, ten to enemy jet fighters, with forty-four missing and unaccounted for, and the remainder to accidents. Ed Schmued: “Unfortunately, the P-51 was a high-altitude fighter. [In Korea] it was used in ground support work, which is absolutely hopeless, because a .30-caliber bullet can rip a hole in the radiator and you fly two more minutes before your engine freezes up. Flying a P-51 in ground support was almost a suicide mission. It is unfortunate that the airplane had been used for ground support, but in the Korean conflict we were short of airplanes and anything had to do. This was the reason for using the P-51 in low-level operations.”
Pilot James Hilary (Jim) Flemming standing on the wing of a 77 Squadron P-51 Mustang aircraft (A68-757). This aircraft was Flemming’s ‘personal’ aircraft that he flew regularly for three years, prior to the Korean War, and in which he flew on the first operational mission flown by 77 Squadron over North Korea. [AWM P03595.001]
Pilots of the Royal Australian Air Force flew Mustangs in Korea as a part of the United Nations force there and on September 9th 1950, RAAF 77 Squadron Flt. Lt. Roscoe Coburn was attacking a target at Kigye, using rockets, when his F-51 was struck in the cooling system by ground fire. Coburn and his mates were operating from a base in Japan called Iwakuni and he headed back for it, accompanied by Flt. Lt. Jack Murry. As the two pilots flew across the Strait of Tsushima, the serious damage to Coburn’s plane worsened. Streaming glycol coolant fumes were seeping into his cockpit and condensing on his canopy, eliminating his side vision and forcing him to begin flying on instruments. Soon Murry saw glycol streaming from Coburn’s radiator shutter.
As the pair approached the Honshu coast, Coburn’s engine temperature redlined and the Merlin started running roughly. Sparks began trailing from the engine exhaust stacks and Coburn knew he had only seconds to bail out. He quickly trimmed the aeroplane for hands-off flight so he could leave it. At that point the engine seized. The action caused the big four-blade prop to shear off and go spinning into space. For a brief period the Mustang continued on in a fairly steady glide while the loose prop spun slowly ahead and then downward towards the sea.
Ross Coburn bailed out as the plane crossed the coast and was soon in the hands of some Japanese farmers who escorted him to his base. Jack Murry was relieved to find Coburn safely back at Iwakuni later. He had not seen Coburn bail out, as he had been following the descent of the wayward propeller at the instant Coburn exited his Mustang.
Early in October, 77 Squadron was relocated to a field designated as K-3 at Po’hang in South Korea, cutting more than 300 miles off the lengthy combat missions of the unit. The living conditions at K-3 were considerably poorer than the pilots had been used to at Iwakuni. In Korea they now lived in drafty, flimsy, uncomfortable tents and were dependent for both heat and lighting on napalm burning in tin cans. The tough Aussies had not lived in cold like the approaching Korean winter and were particularly miserable at night when the temperature dropped dramatically. They soon requested and were given American Air Force clothing, which proved far more useful in the conditions than their own uniforms.
In November the squadron was again relocated, this time to the Yongpo airfield near Hamhung, K-27, closer to their targets. With the move came the full force of Korean winter. However, Yongpo had been built by the Japanese during the Second World War and the Australians enjoyed the relative comforts of life in their permanent brick and stone buildings. Still, they suffered in the plummeting temperatures and heavy snows of the isolated base there on the coastal plain. It was worse for the ground crews toiling, in the zero daytime temperature and -20 degrees at night. The pilots shared some of the chores with their mechanics, sweeping accumulated snow from their planes, and helping with the arming and fueling.
The daily routine that winter had the Aussie pilots taking off at dawn to strike at enemy targets forty miles away near Chang Jin. They would return quickly to Yongpo to rearm and refuel before continuing the shuttle missions in support of U.S. Marines, until nightfall. Moving day came again on December 3rd when the men of 77 Squadron were required to take their Mustang fighter-bombers south to K-9, at Pusan, where the living standard was somewhat lower than that at Yongpo, but certainly better than the tents of Po’hang. Now they were quartered in wooden huts with concrete floors and gasoline-stove heating.
Operating from K-9, however, posed some special problems for the 77 Squadron pilots. With menacing, rocky hills on three sides of the field, and the western channel of the Korean Straight on the fourth side, prevailing winds required the Aussies to take off in their heavily-loaded F-51s towards the hills, with the corresponding danger, and to make their landing approaches over the sea, frequently causing depth perception disorientation. The other major problem in operating from K-9 was thick dust, clouds of it that found its way into their eyes, food, clothing, and their Mustangs. Vital equipment was affected; radio tuners were jammed, air filters clogged, and fuel contaminated.
In January, the pilots of 77 were assigned to bomb the Chinese Army Headquarters at Pyongyang, known to be the most heavily defended target in North Korea. The plan called for two flights of six Mustangs each, with one bringing bombs and the other napalm. Each Mustang was also carrying four rockets. The bomb-carrying ’51s were to attack the target first and then use their rockets to suppress enemy anti-aircraft fire. The second flight would then strike with its napalm. The mission would test the maximum range of the Mustangs.
The first flight arrived as scheduled and dropped their bombs, but the second flight was delayed by deteriorating weather, arriving late over the target area. Their lateness found them dropping their napalm in the midst of a rain of bombs from several B-29s above them.
Australian Flt. Lt. Gordon Harvey’s Mustang was damaged as he bore in on his napalm attack. One of his weapons was trailing a streak of the jellied compound as he continued his run. He then reported that his engine was losing power and he was going to try to belly-land along the edge of the Taedong River. He managed to put the plane down successfully and was observed running to hide in a haystack. His fellow pilots circled in a rescue protection effort, but little hope was held out for Harvey, who had come down 150 miles into enemy territory. The next day a rescue helicopter arrived in the area where Harvey had landed, but found only his wrecked Mustang and some footprints in the snow. In 1951 the North Koreans released a list of prisoners of war they were holding and Harvey’s name appeared on it. On August 29th 1953, he was released from captivity.
In the nine months of their combat operations in Korea, 77 Squadron flew more than 3,800 combat sorties. They lost ten pilots in combat, two in a fire at Po’hang, two in accidents, and one who became a prisoner of war.
Major Louis Sebille commanded the 67th Fighter Squadron, USAF, and was leading a four-Mustang section out of Ashiya air base, Japan, on August 5th 1950, to provide close air support for a UN operation near Pusan, Korea. His planes carried two 500-pound bombs and four rockets each.
As they crossed the Sea of Japan, one of the F-51 pilots radioed Sebille that he was having a mechanical problem and was returning to Ashiya. The other three fighter-bombers continued on course towards Pusan. There they were redirected by a ground controller to Hamchang at a point on the Naktong river where North Korean troops were crossing. Many of these troops were on a sand bar in the middle of the river when Sebille attacked them. He released his bombs, but one of them would not dislodge. With the hung-up bomb still attached to his wing, he joined the other two Mustangs as they strafed enemy vehicles that were partially concealed under trees on the western river bank.
Circling in their rocket attacks on the vehicles, the ’51s were exposed to small arms fire and Sebille’s plane was struck in the radiator, which then began bleeding glycol. One of the other Mustang pilots, Captain Martin Johnson, radioed Sebille to warn him of the coolant loss. At first, there was no reply or acknowledgment from the Major. Then Johnson heard his commander say, “They hit me.” Johnson suggested that Sebille head south-east for the UN base near Taegu, but the Major rejected the suggestion and said that he was going to “get that bastard.” Johnson watched as Sebille’s Mustang descended towards the target, guns blazing. He was shocked by the immense explosion as Sebille’s plane, and its remain ing bomb and rockets, detonated on contact with the enemy vehicle. Major Sebille was the first of four U.S. Air Force men to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions during the Korean conflict, and the last Mustang pilot recipient of the award.