USAF Reconnaissance during the Korean War II

The commander of the 67th TRW requested that a few F-86s be modified to carry cameras. When forwarded to the United States, these requests were rejected because RF-84Fs were to replace the RF-80s. But the RF-84s never came. The 15th TRS commander, working with other pilots in the squadron, prepared a mockup of the nose section of an F-86 fitted with a horizontally mounted camera shooting through a mirror angled at 45 degrees for vertical photography.

The wing commander supported this effort to FEAF, and six F-86As were identified in a project called Honey Bucket for modifications in Japan. General Vandenberg, during a visit to the Far East, strongly supported the effort and directed that kits be prepared by North American Aviation to expedite the conversion of these F-86As to a reconnaissance version. The first RF-86A arrived at Kimpo AB in December 1951 and was flown by a 15th TRS pilot who had previously flown the F-86. Following several camera test flights in South Korea, the first RF-86A combat missions were flown in January 1952. Early photography was not very satisfactory for two basic reasons: the vibration of the mirror, and the reversed image. These factors demanded that the film receive special handling for processing and expert photo interpretation because of the blurred images.

Other reconnaissance elements transferring to the operational control of the 67th TRW in May 1951 were Firefly C-47s. These aircraft had been first used in January 1951 to drop flares to help identify trucks and trains. Their efforts were combined with the flare drops of RB-26s searching for targets at night, bringing in B-26s for night interdiction.

At one time, Firefly aircraft with RB-26s operated at night in MiG Alley to identify trucks and trains. The slow C-47 Firefly aircraft were quickly restrained to a lower latitude, away from the area of MiG operations, because the risk was considered too great. Another time, the Firefly aircraft flew north, armed with specially designed tacks to drop at extremely low altitudes over roads used by enemy trucks. One C-47 almost ran into three enemy tanks after dropping eight tons of these roofing nails. Calling in B-26s, the C-47 pilot overflew the road again, dropping flares for the attack. The trucks stalled by punctured tires were then attacked. On one such mission, thirty-eight trucks were destroyed.

The Firefly C-47s were so successful that twenty C-46s were requested to be assigned to the 67th TRW. This was denied because of a shortage of flares. Sometimes the Marine Corps night fighters would work with the USAF Firefly aircraft and, after the trucks were illuminated, would attack with 500-pound bombs and 20-mm cannon.

Both the RB-26s and RB-29s had problems with the flash bombs used to illuminate targets for night photography. A new system of cartridge-ejection illumination was problematic because the defect rate was high. This system required flying at 3,000 feet, but, given the mountainous terrain and intense ground fire, this was too low for sustained operations. Subsequently, the combination of the M-46 photoflash bomb and night cameras solved the problem when photographs were taken at 7,000 to 8,000 feet. However, to use SHORAN navigational aids, the aircraft needed to operate at still higher altitudes. The M-120 photoflash bomb was then introduced to provide illumination up to 25,000 feet, but when photography was attempted at 14,000 feet, the cameras did not produce the desired results. Thus, the RB-26s had to fly at lower altitudes without the benefit of SHORAN for navigation.

The RB-29s operated at 20,000 feet for safety as well as effective use of the SHORAN navigation equipment. The M-120 photoflash bombs were supposed to be effective, but large-scale photography could not be obtained with the focal length of the cameras that the planes carried. Finally, a camera with a shorter focal length was used and exposures were triggered by the light of the photoflash bombs.

The RB-45s were not effective at night because opening the bomb bays to drop the photoflash bombs produced vibrations that made the photography ineffective.

Essentially, by June 1952, the 67th TRW was providing all the prestrike and poststrike photography required by the strategic bombers.

A decision was made to strike North Korean power complexes virtually simultaneously, but initially planners hesitated to target the dam at Suiho because it was so close to MiG Alley. Other dams to be attacked included Chosen 3 and 4, Fusen 1 and 2, and Choshin 1 and 2. This effort necessitated USAF and Navy fighter-bombers as well as B-29s attacking at night. Two RF-80s, escorted by F-86s, photographed the results two hours after the attack and confirmed extensive damage. North Korean electric power had been reduced by 90 percent when eleven of the thirteen plants were rendered unserviceable. MiGs had not entered the fray.

The 67th TRW established a targets section in the Technical Reconnaissance Squadron. Targets were not in short supply, as evidenced by the fact that the squadron had a backlog of 300 sites by November 1952. Daily intelligence reports and photographs were provided to Fifth Air Force Intelligence from both the 67th TRW and the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron. In fact, the greatest problem was the ability of Fifth Air Force to properly interpret, process, and assign target missions.

The 67th TRW was responsible for keeping close watch over all major airfields and main lines of communication in North Korea, for identifying targets for interdiction, and for providing visual and photoreconnaissance in front of Eighth Army units, including mosaic coverage in depth of the front, prestrike photography, and poststrike (bomb damage) photography. Photography for the Eighth Army extended fifteen to twenty miles in front of each corps. Visual reconnaissance sightings were reported directly by the pilot to fire-support coordination centers.

The biggest problem for providing adequate, timely photo intelligence to forward Army units was the shortage of qualified Army photo interpreters. The breakdown of responsibilities between the Army and the Air Force was clearly spelled out in joint documents, but the Army could not produce the photo interpreters. It fell to the Air Force to supply the personnel, within its own limitations of qualified photo interpreters.

The 67th TRS continued to produce more photography and intelligence information than could be used, despite being handicapped with older aircraft. After losing five RF-51 Mustangs to ground fire while conducting visual reconnaissance missions, the Mustangs were restricted to 6,000 feet. The Mustang, with its radiator slung on the fuselage beneath the aircraft, was particularly vulnerable to ground fire because a single enemy round that penetrated the radiator could drain all the coolant and cause the engine to seize.

In July 1952, the Eighth Army introduced the 98th Engineer Aerial Photo Reproduction Company, giving it a capability of handling 5,900 negatives and producing 25,000 prints daily. Eighth Army stated that it needed from Air Force reconnaissance 4,900 negatives daily when it was engaged in fighting, and 3,600 negatives when it was static. In September 1952, Eighth Army agreed to the establishment of a Reconnaissance Branch in the joint operations center, which eventually resulted in the Army’s reducing its need for photographic coverage.

The Eighth Army demand for photographs did not vary regardless of weather or the fewer daylight hours during winter. This resulted in 30 percent of the Fifth Air Force effort being dedicated to Army front lines. The Army wanted 3,600 daily negatives at a scale of 1:6,000 or 1:7,000. These had been the preferred scales during World War II, but they proved problematic for the faster jet aircraft still equipped with World War II cameras. Installation of image motion compensators on the cameras provided a workable solution. The army requested oblique photography at a scale of 1:3,000, but because of the high aircraft loss rate, Lt. Gen. Glenn O. Barcus in October 1952 prohibited reconnaissance aircraft from operating below 9,000 feet when within 30,000 yards of the front lines. Over heavily defended areas, such as Pyongyang, aircraft would have to remain above 12,000 feet.

The Far East communist aerial order of battle in mid-1952 included some 7,000 aircraft: 5,000 Soviet, 2,000 Chinese, and 270 North Korean. Antung was the principal airfield, but several satellite airfields were located nearby. Other aircraft were located in the Mukden and Changchun area as well as the Port Arthur-Dairen group, and Peiping-Tientsin and Tsingtao group.

These airfields were photographed not only by RF-80s but also by the RF-86s assigned to the 15th TRS. One pilot, Lt. Mele Vojvodich, flying an RF-86 Sabre, spoke of flying an almost weekly coverage of the MiG-15 airfields in the Antung complex. He also flew at least one mission up to the Harbin area. Although spotted by MiGs, he was able to outrun them, first at altitude, and then down on the deck. Subsequently, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his RF-86 missions. Lt. Tom Gargan, who also flew both the RF-86 and the RF-80, was also awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for an RF-80 mission after completion of his tour, ending with the armistice on July 27, 1953.

Although F-86s from the 4th and 51st Fighter Wings escorted some of these reconnaissance missions, the number of aircraft drew too much attention and led to photo mission aborts. Tactics varied. Sometimes an RF-86 was accompanied by a single F-86, and at other times, by more escorts. Occasionally, the escort had to break off to engage a MiG, leaving the RF-86 behind.

When the F-80 fighter wings gave up their aircraft for more modern straight-winged F-84s, the 15th TRS was able to incorporate a number of F-80Cs into the squadron. These aircraft were modified to carry one vertical camera with a 24-inch focal length. In August 1952, the 45th TRS gave up its RF-51 Mustangs, and RF-80s from the 15th TRS were made available. Then both the 15th and 45th had a mixture of RF-80As and RF-80Cs, with the 15th TRS also having some five RF-86As. Both squadrons then participated in visual and photo missions.

Covert intelligence reported the presence of a political school in North Korea for training subversives to penetrate into South Korea. The facilities were confirmed through photography, and on October 25, 1952, the 1,000-man school providing a six-month training course was attacked and virtually destroyed.

In December 1952, RB-26s worked with B-26s to locate train traffic. When RB-26s spotted trains, they would illuminate them with flares, and the B-26s would attack. In Operation Spotlight on December 30, four locomotives were destroyed and one was damaged in a marshaling yard. Firefly aircraft also participated in these operations. Thirty-three locomotives were destroyed in January 1953, and twenty-nine, in February. Roads were also blocked, and the vehicles in the resulting traffic jam would be destroyed. In January and February of 1953, 5,432 vehicles were destroyed.

General Barcus, commander of Fifth Air Force, expressed concern over the possibility of an enemy air offensive on January 5, 1953, when Il-28 twin-jet medium bombers were introduced into Manchuria. These aircraft occasionally flew parallel to the Yalu River within Manchuria, not crossing into Korea, and they could have provided an important night attack capability.

On January 12, 1953, an RB-29 was shot down during a night mission while it was dropping leaflets along the Yalu. MiG aircraft carrying external fuel tanks engaged U. S. Marine Corps fighter-bombers, Royal Australian Air Force Meteors, and RF-80s in late March 1953 in the Chinnampo area south of Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. This was an unusual departure from their typical sorties, when they stayed within MiG Alley, close to Manchuria.

In the spring of 1953, the 15th TRS exchanged its RF-86A models for the newer version, the RF-86F. Its ability to carry four drop tanks (instead of the previous two) significantly increased its range and made it much easier to make deep penetrations into Manchuria to overfly and photograph airfields.

In April 1953, reconnaissance revealed communist efforts to make a number of airfields operational, undoubtedly in preparation for the truce. Gen. Otto P. Weyland, commander of the Far East Forces, also anticipating an imminent truce, waited until June 10 before ordering attacks. Foul weather created delays before the airfields could be attacked, but every airfield except one was considered unusable by June 23. Clearing weather revealed rapid progress by the communists to again make these airfields serviceable. Forty-three MiGs were photographed at Uiju, a sod field, and twenty-one conventional aircraft were discovered at Sinuiju.

On July 12, 1953, an RF-80 reconnaissance flight revealed the communists’ preparation for an attack on the relatively stabilized front. They had chosen the cover of bad weather, but all Fifth Air Force resources were available to respond. B-29s used SHORAN to attack eighty-five targets that had been previously identified through reconnaissance photography. Forty-three percent of air sorties flown in July, involving 3,385 sorties, provided close air support for the Army. On July 20 and 21, B-29s in night sorties attacked all these airfields. These were followed by fighter-bomber attacks continued until July 23.

The truce was to take effect at 2200 on July 27, 1953. The 67th TRW mounted a maximum effort to photograph every airfield in North Korea and in Manchuria that posed a potential threat to U. N. forces. All the airfields in North Korea were shown to be unserviceable for jet aircraft. Several RF-86 missions were flown into Manchuria to determine the aerial order of battle. One mission photographed airfields in the distant Harbin area.

A pilot of the 45th TRS, flying an RF-80, was killed flying a sortie near the Yalu River. He was the last man killed in combat during the Korea War. The mission he was unable to complete was quickly undertaken by pilots in the 45th TRS, who returned to Kimpo at dusk. An RB-26 flew the last combat sortie of the Korean War.

The first combat mission of the Korean War was flown by Lt. Bryce Poe II of the 8th TRS in an RF-80. The last was flown by an aircrew of the 12th TRS, who returned to base by 2200 on July 27, 1953. Tactical reconnaissance had fulfilled its enduring motto, First and Last Over the Target.

Robert F. Futrell, in his outstanding book, The United States Air Force in Korea, sums up the contribution of tactical reconnaissance:

Despite the fact that the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing was handicapped by the failure of USAF reconnaissance systems to keep pace with the requirements of the jet air age, it nevertheless far outstripped all existing reconnaissance performance records. In Europe during World War II the highest number of sorties flown in any month by a Ninth Air Force reconnaissance group was 1,300 in April 1945. In Korea the 67th flew 2,400 sorties in May 1952.

From D-Day to V-E Day in Europe, the sortie rate of the average Ninth Air Force reconnaissance group was 604 sorties a month, but in the twelve-month period of April 1952 through March 1953 the 67th Group averaged 1,792 sorties per month. During comparable periods, the photo group that supported the U. S. Third Army in Europe made 243,175 negatives; the 67th Group in Korea made 736,684. Still, the Eighth Army stated that only 75 percent of their needs were being met, even though more reconnaissance missions were flown during the Korean War than ever before.

USAF reconnaissance played a vital role in securing the intelligence that was so crucial to both Eighth Army and USAF operations in Korea. The political constraints that prevented the allies from pursuing military operations into Manchuria against the Chinese, effectively providing them a sanctuary, placed a significant burden on all planning and was a challenge to intelligence collection. This was only mitigated by the Top Secret overflights of RF-80s and RF-86s from the 15th TRS. Despite extraordinary burdens resulting from the rapid downsizing of reconnaissance units after World War II, USAF reconnaissance more than met the needs of the Eighth Army and the bombing requirements of the U. S. Air Force.

Independent of what could be identified as conventional missions, USAF reconnaissance activities were Air Force special operations during the Korean War. Typically, their activities were so shrouded in secrecy that only recently have the security wraps been removed. These activities were directed by Far East Command and included selected elements of the USAF. Often activities were melded into or were provided the cover of secrecy by association with normal or routine combat operations.

Various units provided a variety of clandestine activities. These included the training in intelligence reporting and subsequent insertion into North Korea of parachute-dropped Koreans from C-46 and C-47 aircraft. Low, night-flying C-46s and C-47s provided direct intelligence on Chinese forces moving from Manchuria to attack Army forces in early December 1950. Other units prepared and dropped leaflets in psychological warfare programs. Firefly operations previously described were subsequently assigned to the Special Forces. The USAF activities in these operations were organized as B Flight, 6167th Operations Squadron, Fifth Air Force, on April 1, 1952. The flight was equipped with B-26s, C-46s, and C-47s.

Another unit was Subdetachment K of the 607th Counter Intelligence. While stationed at Kimpo AB in 1950, MSgt. Don Nichols trained and worked with South Koreans who successfully penetrated North Korea and persuaded a North Korean pilot to defect with an Il-10. Nichols successfully completed a number of intelligence operations that could only be considered coups, such as securing a Russian T-34 tank and parachuting men into North Korea to acquire target information. By March 1951, Nichols’s unit was redesignated the 6004th Air Intelligence Service Squadron. Other USAF units were involved in helicopter and crash rescue boat activity that at times could serve as further means of providing valuable intelligence.

In July 1952, the 581st Air Resupply and Communications Wing arrived at Clark AB in the Philippines from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho. The wing flew twelve modified B-29s, four C-119s, four SA-16 amphibian aircraft, and four H-19 helicopters. Its mission was aerial introduction, evacuation, and resupply of guerrillas, and aerial delivery of psychological warfare propaganda. All units maintained a high degree of readiness and alertness after the July 27, 1953, truce. Reconnaissance units were kept busy flying along the eastern and western coasts of North Korea. RF-80s and RF-86s used oblique photography to record ground activity, and RB-45s were also very much involved. Although these flights were maintained three miles off the coast of North Korea, on occasion they tangled with MiGs.

The success of the RF-86 in combat and its ability to take photographs deep into Manchuria and China led to an improved version of the RF-86F capable of carrying twin forty-inch cone vertical cameras. On March 1, 1954, the 15th TRS deployed to Komaki with its RF-86Fs and RF-80s. There, eight of the newly modified RF-86Fs were waiting. Within a few short weeks, the 15th TRS was involved in a series of Top Secret missions that carried over into 1956. More than forty successful sorties were flown over various airfields in the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea, without a single loss. Each of these Top Secret missions was personally approved by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

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