Naval Aviation in the Korean War II

In two days of very hard fighting, Marines on the ground teamed with Marines in the air to drive the North Korean forces from Obong-ni ridge and across the Nakton River thereby eliminating the dangerous salient. This did not end the fighting along the Pusan Perimeter as the In Min Gun desperately tried to drive American and South Korean forces off the peninsula before reaching their culminating point. But U.S. Army and ROK forces on the ground and Navy, Air Force, and Australian planes in the air would undertake the subsequent fighting at Pusan without their Marine component. In the first week of September, Marines of the 1st Provisional Brigade loaded on amphibious shipping and joined their fellow units of the 1st Marine Division then arriving from the United States. Their destination would be the port city of Inchon where they would conduct a remarkable amphibious landing, resulting in a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of war.

Operation Chromite, the amphibious landing at Inchon and subsequent capture of Kimpo airfield and the capital city of Seoul, began on 15 September 1950 with the Marine landing force securing Wolmi-do Island under fire. Of course, the planning and preparation had begun well before that date including an extensive effort by General MacArthur to persuade civilian and military leaders in Washington of the efficacy of his plan. In the minds of many high-ranking leaders, MacArthur’s concept was not only bold, but also highly risky. The geography and hydrography of that area made the approaches treacherous, with tides averaging twenty-three feet and a strong tidal current that further complicated navigation. In the Supreme Commander’s view, all these difficulties would cause his enemy to discount the possibility of a landing at Inchon and thereby ensure the element of surprise. In MacArthur’s mind, catching the NKPA unaware and unprepared would more than make up for the physical and tactical problems of landing at Inchon. Ultimately, MacArthur got his way as well as the forces he believed he needed to conduct the operation. These included the 1st Marine Division, the 7th Infantry Division, and the largest assemblage of naval air power since the end of World War II. The Fifth Air Force provided a supporting role by neutralizing North Korean airfields, cutting railroads and bridges, conducting reconnaissance, and providing tactical air support to Eighth Army at the Pusan Perimeter.

During the transit from Japan and the Pusan Perimeter to Inchon, naval aircraft operating from Sicily, Badoeng Strait, Valley Forge, Philippine Sea, and HMS Triumph lashed out at targets in the objective area as well as other locations along the coast to diminish enemy capability and keep them guessing as to the actual landing site. Additionally, aircraft flying off Valley Forge flew regular photoreconnaissance missions, providing current intelligence and updated targeting information. As the Amphibious Task Force moved toward the objective area on 14 September (D-1), carrier aircraft attacked the landing sites, followed by surface fires from supporting cruisers and destroyers. The carrier planes alternated with surface guns throughout the day, focusing much of their fires on Wolmi-do Island where the Marines would make their initial landing. As the assault force made its way to Green Beach on Wolmi-do in the early hours of 15 September, twenty-eight Marine Corsairs covered the final run-in as four destroyers continued to provide surface gunfire support.

The Marines of 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, captured Wolmi-do Island by 0800 in the morning on D-day, and turned toward So Wolmi-do (a small island attached by causeway to Wolmi-do) which they captured by late morning. On receiving a message that the beachhead had been secured, MacArthur turned to Rear Admiral James H. Doyle, Commander of the Amphibious Task Force, and said: “Please send this message to the fleet: ‘The Navy and Marines have never shone more brightly than this morning.’” In accomplishing this first phase of the operation, the Marines suffered only seventeen casualties, none of which proved fatal. They now prepared for a potential counterattack across the causeway from Inchon and waited for the tide to rise for the next phase of the complex operation. During this time, Skyraiders from Task Force 77 continued to isolate the battlefield by interdicting enemy movement and attacking various targets. Carrier-based aircraft also concentrated fire on the next landing sites including Beach Red, north of Wolmi-do Island in Inchon proper, and Beach Blue, south of Wolmi-do in slightly more open country. The task force commander set H-hour for 1750 at which time the First and Second battalions of the Fifth Marines under Lieutenant Colonel Raymond Murray assaulted Red Beach and the First Marines under legendary Colonel Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller assaulted Blue Beach. By the end of the day, the Navy had landed 13,000 troops along with their weapons and equipment, and the landing force had secured all objectives. The cost in blood for the first day of fighting amounted to 21 killed and 174 wounded. The uniform success of this D-day operation owed much to the professionalism and courage of the Marines of the landing force, of course. Yet the importance of overwhelming close air support provided by Navy and Marine carrier aircraft on this day and in subsequent fighting ashore cannot be overstated. On D-day alone, these pilots flew 344 sorties at the loss of two aircraft. The carriers would maintain that high-intensity level throughout the two weeks of the Inchon-Seoul operation.

On 16 September, the Marines continued the attack to capture Kimpo airfield while the 7th Infantry Division landed in trace (i.e., behind the 1st Marine Division, the initial assault force) and moved south toward Suwon to recapture its airfield and prepare for a linkup with the Eighth Army upon its breakout from the Pusan Perimeter. Much of this fighting by Eighth Army and X Corps (the parent command of the Marines and Army units conducting the Inchon-Seoul operation) proved to be very fierce. By 20 September, the Marines began their assault on Seoul and one week later secured the city. On 29 September 1950, MacArthur returned Seoul to Syngman Rhee and restored civil government to the Republic of Korea. As Walker’s Eighth Army attacked out of the Pusan Perimeter, it met desperate resistance initially, “but with supplies gone, caught between pincers, and without retreat routes available, he [the enemy] gave way at an accelerated rate.” The collapse of the In Min Gun went from a precipitate withdrawal to complete disintegration in which Kim Il-sung’s experienced and hardened troops abandoned their arms and equipment while surrendering in droves. “Within a month, the total of Red captives rose to 130,000.”

In late September, MacArthur received amplifying instructions directing the destruction of remaining North Korean units, including operations north of the 38th parallel. By 20 October, Eighth Army initiated an attack on the North Korean capital city of Pyongyang, which quickly fell, while X Corps landed at Wonsan on the east coast of Korea. Over 3,000 expertly laid magnetic and contact mines delayed the landing, and it ultimately required a concerted effort by naval aircraft, helicopters, and surface minesweepers to clear Wonsan Harbor and land the Marines. The NKPA commanders had clearly learned a hard lesson from the Inchon operation, and thereafter mined all the major harbors they could access. By the time the Wonsan landing occurred, ROK Army units had cleared the area of light In Min Gun resistance, and the Marines went ashore unopposed. Subsequently, X Corps landed U.S. 7th Infantry further north at Iwon and an ROK force at Tanchon. Despite the delay at Wonsan, the drive to the Yalu had begun.

For the march into North Korea, MacArthur’s Far East Command divided air support between Fifth Air Force, which supported Eighth Army moving north from Pyongyang on the west side of the peninsula, and Task Force 77 supporting X Corps to the east. Initially, Task Force 77 controlled all air activity in the Wonsan area, but that changed when Air Force leaders argued that the arrangement would lessen coordination of Allied tactical air in Korea. As a result, MacArthur placed 1st Marine Air Wing under control of Fifth Air Force although it remained primarily in support of X Corps. Doctrinal differences between Air Force procedures and those of the Navy and Marine Corps created problems that became apparent early in the war and were never fully reconciled. Yet this command arrangement for aviation units remained in place through the end of the war. Despite ongoing problems and general dissatisfaction among Navy and Marine Corps commanders, the relationship worked, as evidenced by subsequent combat actions in both North and South Korea. For example, during the fighting around the Chosin reservoir and subsequent march to the sea in December 1950, after the Chinese Communists entered the war, ground units of the 1st Marine Division were covered by one of the heaviest concentrations of aircraft of the whole war, consisting exclusively of carrier-based planes of the Marine Corps and Navy.

Clearly, close air support proved to be among the most important missions for both carrier air power and the fighting units on the ground; and this remained true throughout the Korean War. Yet naval aviation provided numerous other functions that contributed substantially to American’s military effort during the conflict. Among the more important of these were interdiction missions, armed reconnaissance, and Air Group strikes. The latter involved scheduled attacks consisting of thirty to fifty aircraft against fixed objectives such as bridges, dams, or industrial areas. In these strike packages, the Corsairs and Skyraiders typically carried heavy ordnance loads while Panther jets provided air cover and suppressed ground fire with rockets and 20-mm gunfire. Air Group strikes proved particularly significant early in the war before American air power had destroyed most high-value targets.

The interdiction missions involved strikes to disrupt the flow of war material from enemy supply bases to their front lines. Once the Chinese entered the war in late 1950, this became a particularly lucrative, though difficult, area for exploitation. Since the U.S. Navy controlled the seas and dominated major ports such as Wonsan, Hungnam, and Chongjin, Communist leaders had to rely on railroads and the primitive road system for re-supply. This resulted in a cat-and-mouse game between the planes of Task Force 77 and their enemy on the ground who frustrated the aviators by hiding trains within tunnels, moving primarily at night, and emplacing automatic weapons at key positions to protect locomotives and major staging areas. As the war progressed, these missions became increasingly dangerous for the planes and pilots of Task Force 77. Yet the interdiction sorties had a major impact on deliveries at the front, particularly ammunition of all types, which Mao Zedong’s army used in great quantities. The deep interdiction mission also focused against troop concentrations and key transportation centers twenty to forty miles behind the front, especially after the Chinese entered the war. The most famous interdiction operation of the war occurred during March and April 1951 against two bridges in the Kilchu-Songjin area. This action became known as the Battle of Carlson’s Canyon due to the damage inflicted by a squadron of Skyraiders commanded by Lieutenant Commander Harold G. “Swede” Carlson flying off USS Princeton.

The Battle of Carlson’s Canyon involved a thirty-day sequence of bridge bombing, bombing the efforts to repair the bridge, and confronting clever efforts to bypass the bridge. Not only did this prove frustrating, but also these and other targeted bridges became great anti-aircraft traps for the pilots of Task Force 77. The Battle for Carlson’s Canyon became the real-life model for James A. Michener’s novel The Bridges at Toko-ri and subsequent movie of the same name. In his role as correspondent, Michener spent several weeks on board Essex and Valley Forge, becoming familiar with the people and missions of their Air Groups, whom he also used as models for his fictionalized version of the naval air war in Korea. Carlson’s squadron of Skyraiders later succeeded in destroying the sluice gates of the Hwachon Dam after previous efforts by air and land had failed, earning his unit the nickname “Dambusters.” The complexity of this mission required an unconventional approach and the Princeton’s aviators responded by using aerial torpedoes left over from World War II. If other missions had established the destructive power of naval aviation, the attack on Hwachon Dam demonstrated its flexibility and capacity for innovation.

The armed reconnaissance mission proved particularly valuable in areas that artillery or naval gunfire could not cover, such as mountainous areas of North Korea. Conducted primarily by F9F Panther jets of Task Force 77, these actions focused on the primitive road network. A typical mission consisted of four Panthers (two sections of two planes each) loaded with rockets, bombs, and 20-mm ammunition. After clearing the beach at ten thousand feet, the aircraft would descend and move to their patrol area looking for targets to attack. The lead plane would fly at three hundred feet followed by a second plane at one thousand. The second section consisting of the third and fourth plane would follow at about three thousand feet to provide air cover and assist in navigation. The lead pilot served as a spotter in identifying targets and threats for the second, which conducted the actual attack. This action would occur at a speed of about 250–300 knots, and typically in very rugged terrain. After the attacking plane expended its ordnance, it would rotate with the lead plane, and then the sections would rotate until all aircraft had exhausted their loads.

The military use of helicopters evolved significantly during the course of the Korean War. Initially used for observation and evacuation, innovative leaders quickly devised other important applications such as laying communications wire and telephone cables, night casualty evacuation, search and rescue, covert operations, gunfire spotting, minesweeping, and transporting troops and supplies through vertical envelopment, including ship-to-shore movement. Arrival of Marine Helicopter Transport Squadron (HMR)-161, operating the larger Sikorsky HRS-1 transport helicopter in the spring of 1951, made possible the first mass helicopter re-supply in history, named Operation Windmill 1, in which 18,848 pounds of gear and seventy-four Marines were moved a distance of some seven miles in twenty-eight flights. Similar evolutions including operations Summit and Bumblebee occurred in the following weeks, helping to establish the helicopter as an important tactical system. Helicopters evacuated nearly ten thousand Marines in the course of the Korean War during which over one thousand flights occurred at night. Although the Navy made use of helicopters in Korea as well, Marines accomplished most of the battlefield innovation with the Army and Air Force essentially uninvolved until the latter part of the war.

After the large-scale Chinese entry into the war in November and December 1950, the battles moved several times into South Korea and then back to the north as each side launched major offensive operations. During this fighting from 1951 through 1953, naval aviation executed numerous and various roles. Planes of Task Force 77 undertook considerable air action in conjunction with the Air Force’s massive interdiction effort known as Operation Strangle and its successor, Operation Saturate. Other functions included, on 25 August 1951, the first ever use of carrier fighters to escort Air Force bombers over hostile territory. This period of the war also marked a time of greater cooperation between the Air Force and naval aviation units in joint targeting and operational planning. Of course, as the war progressed, numerous changes occurred in the nature of the naval air war. Among other things, the ratio of jet aircraft sorties to propeller planes increased significantly. This resulted from adjustments made in aircraft employment as well as introduction of the F2H Banshee jet in the fighter-bomber role. The Banshee could outperform the Panther in both the intercept and ground attack mode, and proved particularly effective against bridges and railroads. It also served as a superb photoreconnaissance aircraft in its F2H-2P variant. Additionally, introduction of the F3D Skyknight night fighter during the war augmented the Panther and Banshee in their fighter-intercept role. Among other advantages, the Skyknight had a sophisticated radar system that could identify enemy aircraft approaching from both front and rear. It proved particularly valuable in escorting Air Force B-29s on nighttime bombing runs. Although not as effective against the MiG-15 as the F-86 Sabre, all three of these Navy fighters could often defeat MiG challengers due to the superior training of the Navy and Marine Corps pilots.

Changes in the concept of carrier employment also occurred in the course of the war from a blue-water replacement for the battleship to that of a more littoral and land-focused platform. This led to the idea of aircraft carriers operating throughout the world in environments where land-based air power may not be available. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger personified his evolving view of the utility of the carrier many years later with his famous question during times of crisis, “Where are the carriers?” Of course, carriers themselves underwent significant enhancements beginning with upgrades to Essex-class ships. This led to development of the big deck super carriers including the Forrestal class in 1955 followed by the nuclear-powered Enterprise and Nimitz classes.

A need for carrier-based fighters that could compete with the Communist MiG-15 in air-to-air combat as effectively as the Air Force F-86 Sabre influenced the development of the F-8 Crusader and F-4 Phantom II, both of which performed well against the MiG-17, MiG-19, and MiG-21 in Vietnam. Modernization of naval ground attack capability resulted in production of the superb A-4 Skyhawk light attack jet. Further, the need for an all-weather, night strike plane led to production of the A-6 Intruder (along with its electronic warfare variant, the EA-6B Prowler), another weapon system that performed very well in Southeast Asia and subsequently. The tactical maturing of the helicopter during the war had an impact on land combat like few innovations in military history. This constitutes another important area where the experiences and lessons of the Korean War profoundly affected events a few years later in Vietnam. Regrettably, this good use of lessons learned and improvement in warfighting did not extend itself to an understanding of the role of strategy in warfare—and the importance of adequacy in strategy—once the United States committed itself to the conflict in Southeast Asia. Having accepted war without victory in Korea, American leaders twenty years later found it possible to accept defeat for the first time ever in Vietnam. The most important lesson of Korea and of the history of warfare in general is that wars are won by adequate strategy and not tactical or operational excellence alone. This seems to have been completely lost on America’s leaders of the 1960s.


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