Naval Aviation in the Korean War I

When the Korean war began in 1950, the F9F Panther comprised the vast majority of US Navy carrier based aircraft. The illustration “First Light” above is by aviation artist Ed Markham.

On Sunday, 25 June 1950, the North Korean People’s Army—the In Min Gun—attacked across the 38th parallel into the Republic of Korea (ROK) thereby initiating the Korean War. Numerous provocations over the preceding two years such as raids, sabotage, guerrilla activity, infiltration, propaganda, and economic pressure had failed to bring down the Syngman Rhee government or persuade a majority of South Koreans to support a Communist takeover. Meanwhile, the United States had sent ambiguous diplomatic signals regarding its commitment to Korea, and all of Asia for that matter, beyond its vital interests in Japan and the Philippines. The general weakness of American military forces in the Far East coupled with their withdrawal from Korea after the establishment of the Rhee government in 1948 created an impression among Communist leaders that a conventional assault from the North could succeed where numerous subversive efforts had failed. Additionally, the 1949 Communist takeover of mainland China had reinforced the notion that America would not commit ground forces on the mainland of Asia. The United States had stood by as Mao Zedong’s Communists forces defeated the Nationalist Chinese—an America ally throughout and after World War II—and drove them to the island of Formosa (Taiwan), at some cost to America’s international stature. In light of all these considerations, Communist leaders in Pyongyang, Beijing (Peking, as it was then called), and Moscow believed attacking South Korea would be a relatively low-risk operation, which could produce great strategic advantages throughout Asia.

During the months leading up to the North Korean attack, U.S. intelligence services observed increasing signs of its possibility, yet the actual event achieved strategic and tactical surprise. Despite the fact that many ROK units and individuals fought courageously and in some cases effectively, their weapons, equipment, training, and leadership could not match that of the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA). The ROK Army had no armor to oppose the T-34 tanks—provided to North Korea by the Soviet Union—nor did they possess antitank weapons capable of stopping them. They had no heavy artillery comparable to the Soviet-supplied systems, and did not have fighter planes or antiaircraft weapons with which to oppose North Korea’s Soviet-supplied aircraft. When coupled with the element of surprise, these deficiencies proved far too great to overcome. The blatant nature of the North Korean attack supported by weapons, material, and training from the Soviet Union caused many American leaders to see a similar pattern in which “Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese had acted ten, fifteen, and twenty years earlier.”

In the days immediately following Kim Il-sung’s invasion of the Republic of Korea, important events took place in New York and Washington D.C. The United Nations passed a resolution that condemned the attack as an act of aggression, ordered North Korea to cease operations and withdraw its forces, and called on member nations to assist the United Nations in resisting the action. The Soviet delegation would surely have blocked this resolution had they not been boycotting Security Council meetings at the time, in protest against its refusal to seat the People’s Republic of China. Ostensively the war in Korea would be fought under the auspices of the UN; but in essence, it would be an American conflict despite the small contribution of a few allies. The UN action provided the Truman administration a certain amount of international and domestic cover, allowing the United States to take action that might otherwise be problematic.

Among other things, the president of the United States ordered General Douglas MacArthur to take command of all U.S. forces in Korea, conduct evacuation of American citizens, provide ammunition and equipment to South Korean forces, and move the U.S. Seventh Fleet—under command of Vice Admiral Arthur D. Struble—north from the Philippines. He also authorized the use of air and naval forces to protect all such activity and for a survey team to evaluate the situation on the peninsula and determine what the United States could do to assist the Republic of Korea. The president expanded MacArthur’s area of responsibility to include Formosa and ordered the Seventh Fleet to protect that island nation against attack from Communist China. In addition to defending Formosa, Seventh Fleet would also inhibit Chiang Kai-shek from using the crisis as a pretext to attack mainland China, thereby expanding the war. The earliest American combat action of this conflict involved an effort to keep open the air and sea points of embarkation for emergency evacuation. When North Korean YAK fighters attacked U.S. Air Force F-80 Shooting Star and F-82 Twin Mustang aircraft covering the evacuation of civilians over Inchon, American pilots splashed three of the Communist aircraft and later shot down four more over Seoul.

Despite the unpreparedness of U.S. forces, President Harry S. Truman believed he must prevent a Communist takeover of South Korea even if it meant going to war. In Truman’s view, this crisis constituted a critical test of will between the two international blocks—free democracies and totalitarian Communism—that had evolved since the end of World War II. It was a decision widely supported at the time by the American people and the U.S. Congress. Within days of the North Korean attack, the Truman administration authorized MacArthur to use American ground forces to halt the North Korean advance. Of course, this would be problematic since the United States had chosen to scuttle its military might in the aftermath of World War II. Ultimately, it would take full application of American air, naval, and amphibious capability as well as the activation of four National Guard divisions and numerous reserves to reverse the fortunes of war in Korea. Carrier-based naval air power along with land- and carrier-based Marine Corps close air support would prove crucial in the hard fighting American forces faced during three years of the Korean War.

American planes of the Far Eastern Air Force—under command of Lieutenant General George E. Stratemeyer—not only engaged North Korean YAKs during evacuation operations at Inchon and Seoul, but also conducted some to the earliest offensive actions of the Korean War. B-29 Superfortresses and B-26 Invaders flew missions against targets in North Korea, and—in conjunction with F-80 Shooting Stars—attempted to provide support to allied ground troops in the South. The U.S. Navy also conducted early offensive action with the first major strike coming from aircraft of Seventh Fleet’s Task Force 77 off USS Valley Forge on 3 July 1950. These carrier planes, consisting of F9F Panthers, F4U corsairs, and AD Skyraiders, attacked the North Korea capital at Pyongyang and other targets, destroying much of the North Korean air force in the process. Throughout the month of July, Task Force 77—including the Royal Navy’s HMS Triumph and several British escorts—attacked enemy targets in both North and South Korea, while Task Force 96 (a surface action group consisting of one cruiser and four destroyers) provided naval gunfire in support of South Korean forces retreating down the peninsula toward Pusan. The F-80 Shooting Star served as the preeminent U.S. Air Force plane in the theater at that time, but it was primarily a fighter-interceptor. Although superior to anything the North Koreans had, these planes were not ideal in the ground support role. Additionally, they primarily flew out of bases in Japan carrying limited ordnance loads due to their fuel requirements. Therefore, they had minimal time on station once they arrived over Korea. As a result, the only substantial air support available to U.S. and ROK ground forces during much of the early fighting came from carrier-based tactical air.

The outbreak of the Korean War found the United States near the nadir of its post–World War II disarmament. Although the National Security Act of 1947 and its addendum of 1949 purported to strengthen the U.S. military, they fell far short of that goal. Besides, even the most effective legislation could not have overcome the severe budget reductions imposed on the military by Congress and enthusiastically carried out by the Truman administration. Of course, this created enormous inter-Service rivalry for resources, roles, and missions. Additionally, the newly formed U.S. Air Force had made a disruptive play for control of all air missions during the postwar unification battles, including those developed and performed by naval aviation. Many leaders within the defense establishment questioned the need for carrier-based air power anyway, believing that land-based bombers could assume all Navy missions. Secretary of Defense Louis A. Johnson had ungraciously stated to Admiral Richard L. Conolly just six months before the Communist invasion of South Korea, “Admiral, the Navy is on its way out. . . . There’s no reason for having a Navy and Marine Corps. General [Omar] Bradley tells me that amphibious operations are a thing of the past. We’ll never have any more amphibious operations. That does away with the Marine Corps. And the Air Force can do anything the Navy can nowadays, so that does away with the Navy.” Johnson underscored his myopic view of defense planning by canceling the Navy’s modern super carrier project, USS United States, and promoting a strategic bomber of questionable design and excessive cost named the B-36 Peacemaker. The subsequent B-36 debate and controversy had the unfortunate effect of focusing the Air Force’s thinking primarily on strategic air power at the expense of tactical capability. To the extent that naval aviation continued to develop in the constrained and conflicted environment of the late 1940s, it did so in an era of technological change, including the transition from propeller to jet propulsion and the consequent need to move toward more capable carriers.

By 1950, cost-cutting measures had programmed the Navy to retain only five fleet carriers despite the clear beginnings of a Cold War with the Soviet Union. Of course, the U.S. government had mothballed large quantities of ships and other combat systems at the end of World War II with the intention of refurbishing them for future wars, if and when necessary. In the event, nineteen enhanced Essex-class carriers eventually returned to service by the end of the Korean War, fully equipped with operational air groups. This revitalization of naval aviation permitted four carriers to operate continuously in Korean waters while maintaining two in the Mediterranean in support of NATO strategy through the end of the war. Despite Secretary Johnson’s arrogant claims of the demise of the Navy and Marine Corps, carrier aircraft—under Navy and Marine Corps leadership—flew more than 30 percent of all combat sorties of the Korean War. This naval air power, coupled with land-based Air Force capability, proved essential to American operations against the vastly superior manpower that the Chinese Army brought to the fighting when it entered the war in the final months of 1950.

Despite air attacks against the invading In Min Gun and introduction of U.S. ground units, American and South Korean forces could not halt the Communist onslaught until sufficient reinforcements arrived in country. The cumulative effect of the fighting by sea, land, and air forces, coupled with an effective reinforcement effort, eventually halted the North Korean offensive just short of the city of Pusan, thereby permitting American and South Korean forces to retain a toehold on the southeast corner of the peninsula. The American ground troops initially introduced into Korea consisted of ill-trained and inadequately equipped elements of Major General William F. Dean’s 24th Infantry Division based in Japan. Subsequent reinforcements included the 1st Cavalry Division—which landed unopposed at the port of Pohang just north of Pusan—and the 25th Infantry Division. None of these units was combat ready in terms of their authorized strength, the adequacy of their weapons, or the state of their training. Largely, this resulted from a general view among Americans and their leaders that the United States would fight any future war principally with air power and nuclear weapons. Few believed that hard fighting by ground forces such as occurred in World War II would ever again be required.

During the latter part of July, the defenses of the Pusan Perimeter began to stabilize under command of Lieutenant General Walton H. Walker’s Eighth Army headquarters. By early August, Walker’s forces included five ROK divisions, three U.S. divisions—the 24th, the 25th, and the 1st Cavalry—along with the 5th Regimental Combat Team from Hawaii. Additionally, U.S. replacements, reinforcements, and supplies continued pouring in at the port of Pusan from around the world. Shipments included weapons more able to deal with the Communist T-34 tanks, which had previously been difficult to stop by ground forces. In these early weeks of fighting in Korea, several things became obvious to American commanders. Most significantly, the Communists had found a way to negate America’s nuclear advantage by waging war at a level below the nuclear threshold. It was equally apparent that although air power could not win the conventional war that Communist forces had imposed, “it could and did prevent the North from overrunning the South.”

By early September, it became clear that “the United States would not be driven off the Korean Peninsula.” Also by this time, the United States had three aircraft carriers on station, which provided air support to American and South Korean forces while attacking the In Min Gun’s lengthening lines of communications. These, and subsequent carriers assigned to Task Force 77, consisted of Essex-class fleet carriers capable of conducting jet aircraft operations. In addition to Valley Forge, the carriers on station early in the war included Philippine Sea, Leyte, and Boxer. In August, elements of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing arrived from the United States with F4U Corsair squadrons embarked on the escort carriers Badoeng Strait and Sicily thereby constituting Task Element 96.23. This Marine Air Group, MAG-33, was actually a task organized element of the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade that included the 5th Marine Regiment as its ground combat element. Although the Marine Corsairs flew close air support missions for all ground forces fighting in Korea, they primarily supported units of the 1st Marine Division through a highly synergistic relationship that presaged the modern Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF). In the course of the war, six escort carriers with Marine Corps squadrons embarked served in Korean waters.

The typical air group on Essex-class fleet carriers consisted of two F9F Panther jet squadrons, one F4U Corsair squadron, and one AD Skyraider squadron. Ideal in the fighter-intercept role, the Panther also saw service in support of ground operations, and its bomb- and rocket-carrying capacity increased during the war to where it could routinely carry 1,200 pounds of ordnance. The propeller-driven Corsairs could carry 3,000 pounds and the Skyraiders 8,000. The U.S. Far East Air Force quickly recognized the superiority of the Navy’s aircraft mix for the ground attack mission, and sought to improve its ability to support directly the fighting troops. Since Navy squadrons received all available Corsairs and Skyraiders, the Air Force drew on an outstanding World War II fighter that also performed relatively well in the ground attack role, the F-51 (P-51) Mustang. They also upgraded their fighter-intercept capability to the F-84 Thunderjet and then to the F-86 Sabre, the only American or allied airplane that could consistently defeat the Communists’ MiG-15, which entered the fray in November 1950. Once the U.S. Air Force established its squadrons on the Korean peninsula—after a reversal in the fortunes of war—it proved to be a formidable force in the fighting. As the war played out, tactical air support came from 7th Fleet’s Task Force 77, Marine Corsairs off escort carriers and land bases, and ground-based squadrons within South Korea under Fifth Air Force. Once the Air Force established F-86 Sabres on the peninsula to provide fighter cover against the MiG-15, American air superiority in Korea was never in question, although the duel between MiG-15s and F-86 Sabres continued throughout the war.

In the early weeks of the Korean War, as the In Min Gun drove down the peninsula, circumstances constrained the Air Force’s ability to provide close air support to American and South Korean ground forces. The F-80 Shooting Star was not ideally suited for this mission, and it had to restrict the ordnance carried due to the fuel requirements of flying from bases in Japan. This limited firepower, coupled with the short time the jets could remain on station, made for inefficient use of the aircraft. But the Navy and Marine Corps could fly support missions from carriers, which moved close to the battle areas and delivered Corsairs and Skyraiders with generous ordnance loads. Of course, many problems remained, including communications between air and ground forces as well as coordination between Task Force 77 and Fifth Air Force’s Joint Operation Center. Yet these problems improved as the war progressed. Once Air Force squadrons relocated their operating bases from Japan to South Korea, after the Army pushed back the In Min Gun, their contribution became much greater. Throughout the Korean War, the close air support provided by Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force aircraft remained the key to success for units fighting on the ground.

Even though close air support constituted the most crucial mission for naval air power in the early weeks of the Korean War, pilots also performed other important tasks. On 18 July, Valley Forge launched seven F9F Panther jets to conduct an armed reconnaissance along the eastern coast of North Korea. At the port of Wonsan, they identified the vital Wonsan Oil Refining Factory entirely untouched by the war. Later that afternoon, Valley Forge launched a flight of ten Corsairs loaded with rockets and 20-mm ammunition along with eleven Skyraiders carrying rockets, 500-pound bombs, and 1,000-pound bombs. Arriving over Wonsan, the Navy planes swarmed above the refinery attacking first with rockets, then with bombs, leaving it in a state of twisted steel and piled rubble. The naval aviators could observe the towering column of smoke from sixty miles away and it took four days for the fire to burn out. The attack damaged the facility beyond repair and destroyed some 12,000 tons of refined petroleum, at no loss of American planes or pilots.59 Like the earlier attacks against Pyongyang and other North Korean targets, this assault obliterated its target area, demonstrating the flexibility and destructive capability of U.S. naval air power.

In the early weeks of the Korean War, American naval aviation units implemented a number of innovations. The first combat use of an ejection seat occurred during August when Lieutenant Carl Dace’s F9F Panther received ground fire while strafing a North Korean target. After some considerable maneuvering, Dace made it out to sea where he jettisoned his canopy, shot into the air, separated from his seat, opened his parachute, and descended into the water below. Several hours later, a destroyer rescued the damp aviator from his raft. Another innovation involved the military application of rotary-wing aircraft. Helicopters were just beginning to come of age in 1950, and the Navy and Marine Corps found numerous opportunities for their use. Relying primarily on the Sikorsky HO3S, the Sea Service’s aviators initially used these new machines for air rescue and as plane guard during carrier operations. As we shall see, the role of helicopters continued to grow throughout the course of the Korean War.

During the first weeks of August, General Walker and his Eighth Army fought a continuous series of hard battles to prevent the In Min Gun from breaking through the Pusan Perimeter. Much of this fighting benefited from the close air support provided by Marine Corsairs flying off Badoeng Strait and Sicily. On 17 August, Walker attacked a particularly dangerous North Korean position known as Obong-ni (also known as No Name Ridge because reporters did not initially know its real name) that formed a bulge into the American lines. Previous efforts to dislodge the In Min Gun had been unsuccessful, but this time Walker’s attack included a relatively fresh unit, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade commanded by Brigadier General Edward A. Craig. The ground combat element of the brigade amounted to nothing more than a reinforced Marine regiment. A week earlier, ground combat Marines of the 1st Provisional Brigade, teaming with their aviation brethren, had demonstrated the effectiveness of the Marine Air-Ground concept by devastating an NKPA motorized regiment during an attack near the town of Kosong in the southern part of the Pusan Perimeter.

Consisting of the 5th Marine Regiment, Marine Air Group 33, and a combat logistics element, the 1st Provisional Marine Brigade was the lead component of the 1st Marine Division and the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing. General MacArthur had specifically requested this force for the amphibious counterstroke he planned to launch against the North Korean Army. But the situation in the Pusan Perimeter proved too critical to reserve the Marines for some future action. From the time of their arrival off Korea, the Marine Corsair squadrons launched ground-attack sorties, often in conjunction with naval carrier aircraft and Air Force F-51 Mustangs flying out of tightly packed bases within the Perimeter. The 5th Marines, under command of Lieutenant Colonel Raymond L. Murray, working in conjunction with U.S. Army units, would now assault the most critical threat to the Pusan Perimeter, and they would do so under the cover of Marine Corsairs flying off Badoeng Strait and Sicily.

 

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