F-51 Mustang in Korea

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F 51 Mustang in Korea

‘Maj Davis led a flight of 12 F-51 type aircraft on a mission over Korea. He displayed outstanding airmanship and exceptional heroism by leading his squadron over the heavily defended city of Pyongyang, where a devastating low-level napalm attack was made against supply warehouses in that city. Two of his pilots were shot down by enemy fire and his own aircraft was heavily damaged. Despite the intensity of enemy opposition, Maj Davis pulled away from his squadron and circled the target area, repeatedly attempting to locate the downed pilots. After an exhaustive search, he reassembled his squadron over the designated rendezvous point and led them in the direction of home. Approximately ten minutes after leaving the target area, his aircraft’s engine failed. Maj Davis jettisoned his canopy, after which his aircraft was seen to enter a spiral to the left, before crashing into the ground and exploding’ (Art by Gareth Hector)

45th TRS

When the Korean War started the USAF boasted just one jet-equipped reconnaissance squadron, and it was not based in the Far East. In August 1950 two small units arrived in Japan, to be followed by the 45th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS). They all subsequently came under the control of the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW), which consisted of the 15th TRS with RF-80s, the 12th TRS with RB-26s and the 45th TRS with F-51s and RF-51s. The wing’s initial commander was none other than Col Karl I ‘Pop’ Polifka, who was considered to be the foremost reconnaissance man within the USAF.

The 45th TRS was to cover the frontlines with visual and photographic reconnaissance, and it was also assigned to lead fighter strikes. The 67th TRW was responsible for developing, printing and, most importantly of all, interpreting the myriad photographs taken by all of the squadrons. The UN forces were provided with round-the-clock reconnaissance, a service that was sorely needed and highly praised by all units fighting to save South Korea. With the creation of the 67th TRW, the Fifth Air Force now effectively had ‘a pair of highly powered binoculars’ to ferret out tactical information from a clever and tricky enemy.

The 45th TRS was activated on 3 September at Itazuke AB, and it became operational at Taegu AB in October. Conversion onto the type was carried out in Japan, and obtaining additional F-51Ds was hard because the fighter-bomber units had top priority at that time. For almost a year the standard issue F-51 did a tremendous job for the 45th, operating alongside dedicated RF-51s. This was just as well, for the loss rate for the latter would prove to be extremely high owing to the low photography passes that pilots made, with very little chance to take any evasive action. As for the F-51s, they continued to be flown on armed visual reconnaissance missions deep into North Korea, and most of the time they had to stay low as this was their only defence against MiG-15s.

It was not until 3 December that the 45th TRS received its first RF-51s. The unit’s small cadre of pilots (never more than 15) started training with the aircraft, and they quickly discovered that the Mustangs’ cameras had developed some faults during transpacific shipment. The problems were so serious that the cameras had to be completely rebuilt to enable them to operate under combat conditions. Finally, on 27 December 1950, the 45th sent an advance unit to Taegu AB, and the following day the rest of the squadron followed. Just 48 hours after arriving in South Korea the unit flew its first mission – an armed reconnaissance strike behind the main line of resistance. By the end of December the total flying time was 12.5 hours, which was only a fraction of the total Mustang time flown from Taegu that month.

The unit soon got busy, however, and by the end of the conflict the 45th TRS had been committed to every major campaign. The demand for accurate battlefield intelligence was a top priority, and this saw the 45th assigned directly to the 314th Air Division which was the primary USAF command and control organisation created specifically for Korean War operations. At its base at Taegu, and later at Kimpo, expeditious film processing by the squadron was performed once the Mustangs had returned from their missions. These photographs were supposed to be supplied to the Army, who would provide their own photo interpreters to scour the imagery for intelligence. However, as the Army lacked suitably qualified personnel, the USAF initially handled the interpretation needs until additional Army photo interpreters could be flown in from the United States.

On 13 February 1951 Lts James Dolan and 12-victory ace Clyde East completed the 45th TRS’s longest flight so far in the war. Their flight logs showed that they had spent close to six hours over enemy-held territory. During this time they photographed the entire railway line between Hoeryong and Tanchon, constantly dodging enemy ground fire during their low-level flights.

About a month after this mission the squadron began experimenting again. The pilots now operated in two-aircraft formations, with one man up high with a good view of the lie of the land and watching for any enemy fire on the ground, while the other stayed low, with his cameras or guns ready to fire. This tactic seemed to work well for a short time, but it eventually went awry when Capt Brown and Lt Jackie Douglas used it. Brown spotted a target and went down to mark its position with his 0.50-cal guns, but as he started to pull out of his dive he flew straight into the ground. He had been hit by a barrage of ground fire and never had a chance to pull out.

During March and April 1951 the 45th started experimenting with new techniques for locating targets. The most effective of these was known as the ‘Circle 10’ concept. The idea was for the RF-51 pilot to fly a ten-mile-radius circle around where enemy vehicles had been sighted the night before – primarily by an RB-26 of the 12th TRS, a sister outfit to the 45th TRS. Each pilot was assigned to a specific area, which he got to know like the back of his hand. He would then fly the radius and spot anything that was out of place or had not been there the day before. Chinese camouflage techniques were good, but the trained eye could spot concealed targets.

More than half of the Mustangs assigned to the 45th were armed with six 0.50-cal guns and had no cameras, so their pilots were able to shoot up any targets of opportunity. Capt Maurice Nordlund and Lt Bill Zalinsky were flying conventional F-51Ds on an armed reconnaissance mission when they spotted about 200 enemy troops moving along a narrow mountain road with deep ravines on both sides. It was the perfect place to catch the troops, as they had very few places to hide. The two pilots made several firing passes and were able to keep the enemy pinned down until some 18th FBG Mustangs showed up with napalm and rockets. Observations after all the fighter-bombers had finished making their passes showed that the entire enemy force had been wiped out.

45th TRS pilot 1Lt Joe R Hurst recalled the ‘mechanics’ of a successful reconnaissance mission, which was followed up by leading dedicated fighter-bombers to the target;

‘We would work intermediate distances north of the frontline in the hope of spotting some lucrative enemy positions and equipment. The low man of the element would work down right over the treetops. In that position, we were very vulnerable to ground fire, but you had to get low to spot anything that the enemy had camouflaged. In one case we spotted a large group of T-34 tanks – probably a dozen. We marked the location on our map and returned to the closest base to refuel – Seoul City AB. While waiting for my aircraft to be readied, I briefed two flights [eight aircraft] of South Africans and two flights of 67th FBS pilots. All of these guys were flying F-51s with the 18th FBG.

‘The Mustangs were loaded with 500-lb GP bombs. We led these guys up to the “hidden” tanks a total of three times. The first wave of aircraft in hit all of the AAA emplacements that were protecting this group of tanks and took out all the ground fire. When the dust had settled it was dark, and a total of 32 Mustangs had put their ordnance into the area. It had been one of the longest days that I can remember.’

As the war progressed, the automatic fire from the ground became more intense and very accurate. The T-6 ‘Mosquito’ took more than its share of losses when it penetrated too far behind the bomb line due to its slow speed, so, consequently, the RF-51 had to take over the low-level deep-reconnaissance mission in its place.

In records released about the first full year of the war, the USAF announced that the Fifth Air Force’s fighter-bombers had inflicted 126,000 troop casualties – the equivalent of more than 12 full-strength divisions. It was also announced that fighter-bomber losses for the year due to aerial combat with the MiG-15 amounted to one F-84, three F-80s and a pair of F-51s. Most other losses were attributed to ground fire, which was a constant menace.


The RF-51 pilots were usually tasked with flying post-strike photographic missions immediately the smoke had cleared so as to gain an accurate picture of the damage inflicted. Without the proof gathered by such flights it was impossible to tell whether a target needed to be attacked again. 1Lt James Long recalled flying bridge assessments after they had been targeted;

‘To fly a visual on each span of a bridge required you to evaluate the damage and record it all whilst flying at 350-400 mph, with enemy gunners shooting at you from all sides. Of course, if you flew up and down the river they could shoot from both sides, and see you coming from some distance away. Alternatively, you could fly across the river at each bridge, but the approach ends were the most heavily defended and you ended up going over each. You were moving so fast there was no way to capture a complete evaluation of one bridge on one trip over, so you always had to make a second pass. The orders read “do this for every bridge”. Any pilot who made more than two passes into the face of heavy ground fire was not all there in the brain department. Trying to see all five or seven bridges correctly was impossible if you wanted to live, and a recce pilot that did not return did not furnish any information. So the guys that drew the missions alone just did what they could and then headed home with what they had got.’

On 1 July 1951 Col Karl Polifka, the 67th TRG CO, was killed in action near Kaesong while flying with the 45th TRS and doing what he did best – improving reconnaissance tactics. Although he knew that this particular mission would be a dangerous one due to heavy AAA, Polifka insisted on flying it himself. Earlier that day, at the unit’s base at Taegu, F-51 44-74638 (FF-638) had just undergone a rudder change. Lt Col Boardman C Reed of the 45th TRS was to make a quick test flight in the fighter in order to clear it for Polifka’s afternoon mission;

‘At 1545 hrs I made a short flight up to 5500 ft, did several sharp turns and manoeuvres at 250 mph and then landed – I was back on the ramp just 15 minutes after takeoff. “Pop” Polifka was waiting for me, parachute slung over his shoulder. I quickly signed the Form 1-A, while the crew topped off the tanks – the fighter had already been armed with ammunition before I took it aloft. At the time I didn’t realise it, but I had just performed the last landing that FF-638 would ever make.

‘Col Polifka took off and flew north to the target area. His F-51 was critically hit by intense ground fire in the radiator coolant area, which was the most vulnerable spot. When “Pop” bailed out, somehow his parachute fouled in the tail assembly and he was tragically dragged to his death. No further details are known, but it was a tremendous loss to all of us.’

The USAF had lost not only one of its greatest reconnaissance pilots, but also the ‘father’ of modern reconnaissance. Lt Col Reed stated that Col Polifka’s combat record as a reconnaissance pilot in World War 2 was without parallel, and that he was probably the best operational professional in the USAF. His place as wing CO was temporarily taken by Col Vincent Howard until seasoned World War 2 combat veteran Col Edwin Chickering was brought in on 31 October.

In March 1952 1Lt Del Toedt and his wingman were on a two-aircraft mission when they found themselves in a situation similar to that in which Capt Nordlund had been involved, but this time it did not turn out so well. Toedt was providing fighter cover for his wingman as the latter targeted enemy supply routes near the frontlines. The wingman made the first pass down a narrow valley, and Toedt saw the Mustang take numerous hits that proved fatal. The aircraft remained in a steep dive and went straight in among several trucks, causing a huge fiery inferno. Toedt circled the area for at least 15 minutes, drawing heavy automatic fire from a ridge. He pulled up sharply, banked in and sprayed enemy trenches until he ran out of ammunition. He then turned to head back to base. Photographs taken several hours later revealed a heavy body count.

On many of these low-level photo-reconnaissance missions an aeroplane would be shot down, especially if the Chinese had heavy-calibre AAA sited in the target area.

In the spring of 1952 Col Chickering began voicing his concerns to FEAF HQ about the 45th TRS’s heavy mission tasking despite its ever-dwindling fleet of war-weary F/RF-51Ds. He also stated that maintenance personnel were having difficulty in keeping the majority of their Mustangs in the air. The 45th TRS ‘Polka Dots’ started making the transition to the RF-80 towards the end of 1952, although still keeping most of its RF-51s. In an effort to ease the burden on the piston-engined fighter, the unit decided to test the practicability of working Shooting Stars and Mustangs together as a team. The evaluation proved that they could indeed operate together as long as the jets maintained their higher altitude to reduce their heavier fuel consumption.

The photographic results were deemed to be excellent, which was critically important as the wing’s main purpose was to provide the US Eighth Army with current frontline photography. The latter wanted at least 3600 negatives created per day, covering frontline positions and ranging as far back as 15 miles behind the lines. One problem the wing encountered was that the RF-80 proved just too fast for its cameras to operate effectively, which resulted in distorted and blurred images. However, when they functioned in conjunction with the RF-51’s cameras, the photographs produced were perfect – close-ups would come from the Mustang’s cameras and distance shots from the RF-80.

Finally, in early January 1953, the 45th TRS retired its last F/RF-51s in favour of RF-80A/C jets.

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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