Corsairs in Korea I

Jesse Folmar, in his F4U-4B, shooting down a MiG-15 jet fighter.

During the battle of the Chosin Reservoir in the Korean War . . . hit by anti-aircraft fire while supporting the Marines, Ens. Jesse Brown, the Navy’s first African-American aviator, crashed behind enemy lines. His squadron mates from VF-32 thought Brown was dead—until they saw him slide back his canopy and wave. But, Brown did not climb free—he was pinned in his Corsair’s burning wreckage. While his comrades called for a rescue helicopter and circled to ward off any enemy troops, Brown’s wingman, Lt. Thomas Hudner, intentionally crash-landed in that treacherous terrain to try to save his friend.

Wading through snow and subzero temperatures, Hudner reached Brown’s plane and tried to pull him free, but the snow denied him any footing. Brown remained calm, inspiring Hudner. Hudner gave Brown his hat and gloves then used snow, shoveled with his bare hands, to snuff out the fire. When the rescue helicopter arrived, its pilot joined Hudner. Even working together, they could not free Brown, whose leg was pinned and who was in shock. As daylight faded, with Hudner at his side, Jesse Brown passed away. The rescue helo lifted Hudner, exhausted, from the scene.

Four months later, President Truman summoned Hudner and Jesse Brown’s widow, Daisy, to the White House where he awarded Hudner the Medal of Honor. That day, they all remembered Jesse Brown, a hero who did not die alone. LINK

By V-J Day, Corsair production had been drastically cut back. The last FG-1Ds were accepted in September 1945, whereas the final F4U-1Ds had been delivered in February. Thus, at war’s end, Vought’s efforts were almost wholly devoted to the F4U-4, having produced over 1,900 before Japan’s surrender.

Goodyear had won a contract for 2,500 FG-4s, and had actually completed 12, ready for production flight test. But the contract was canceled and since the Navy didn’t need the aircraft, they were scrapped. However, the Vought remained in limited production until the summer of 1947, when 2,356 F4U-4s had been delivered.

The follow-on Corsair was the -5. It first flew in April 1946 as a modified -4, and a layman could not easily tell it from the previous model. But the differences were important. The F4U-5 had Pratt and Whitney’s R-2800-32W engine, the Twin Wasp series E, with “chin” inlets on the cowl for the twin auxiliary blowers. The forward fuselage was wider than on the -4 to accommodate this arrangement. Also, the engine was mounted at over two degrees downthrust to improve longitudinal stability, which improved forward vision.

For the first time in the Corsair line, the outer wing panels were metalized instead of being fabric covered. This resulted in a significant reduction in aerodynamic drag, and was partially responsible for the F4U-5’s maximum speed of over 460 mph. Pilots appreciated the choice of manual or automatic operation of cowl flaps, supercharger, and other equipment. And spring tabs on elevators and rudder could reduce control input by as much as 40 percent. Furthermore, electrically heated guns and pitot tubes enabled the -5 to operate around 45,000 feet. A winterized model, the -5NL, featured deicer boots and improved cockpit heater. Some -5s were even fitted with cigarette lighters, colloquially called “spot heaters” to avoid drawing attention to the nonstandard equipment.

Despite this high-altitude capability, in actual use the F4U-5 would not require such an option. Its combat would be nearly all low-level, where the tremendous payload was eminently useful. When necessary, over 5,000 pounds of ordnance could be carried on the twin underwing pylons and the centerline rack. And there were times when it was necessary. The North Koreans invaded South Korea in June of 1950.

The only American fast carrier in WestPac at the instigation of hostilities was the Valley Forge (CV-45). One of the postwar Essex class, she embarked Air Group 5 with two Corsair squadrons, VF-53 and 54. The “Happy Valley” operated with the HMS Triumph, the beginning of what would thereafter be known as Task Force 77. Despite a considerable diversity of ship and aircraft performance—F9F Panther jets and Fairey Fireflies, for instance—the Anglo-Americans planned a strike against the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. This important target was then beyond the range of available tactical aircraft.

At dawn on 3 July the two carriers were only 75 miles off the west coast of Korea, in the Yellow Sea. At 0600 the Valley Forge commenced launch: 16 rocket-armed Corsairs, 12 bomb-toting AD Skyraiders, and finally 8 Panthers. The faster Grummans arrived first, taking the Communists by surprise. They bagged two airborne Yakovlev fighters, then shot up Pyongyang airfield. When the F4Us and VA-55 ADs arrived, they did a thorough wrecking job. Runways were holed, all three hangars destroyed, and the fuel depot set ablaze. No Allied planes were lost. Thus began three years of carrier operations against the Asian enemy. TF-77 exploited the carrier’s traditional advantages of mobility and territorial independence, striking all around the Korean peninsula the rest of the month.

Not only the fast carriers were involved. On 3 August the escort carrier Sicily (CVE-118) arrived in Tsushima Strait with VMF-214 embarked. The Black Sheep’s F4U-4Bs hit Chinju near the south coast with rockets and incendiary bombs, for the North Korean advance had been swift. On the 6th they were joined by the Badoeng Strait (CVE-116) flying VMF-323, also equipped with -4Bs.

But the enemy advace was too massive to halt with the limited forces on hand. Thirty days after the war began, the United Nations command had lost virtually all its in-country airfields—either overrun or rendered untenable. Air support had to come from the carriers or from Southern Japan. By September the Allied troops were cornered in the small Pusan pocket. In order to retrieve the situation, General Douglas MacArthur accomplished a tricky amphibious landing at Inchon on the west coast, which threatened to catch the Red army in a large pincers.

Before the landing, however, a minor confrontation occurred in the Yellow Sea. At 1330 on 4 September, TF-77 was 100 miles from the Chinese mainland and little more from Russia’s naval-air complex at Port Arthur, on the tip of the Liaotung Peninsula. Thus, the task force was easily within fifteen minutes of Communist airfields, as the jet flies. Shipboard radar detected a bogey at 60 miles range, approaching from Manchuria. A few minutes tracking showed the unidentified aircraft making 200 mph at about 12,000 feet. Evidently it had taken off from Port Arthur. A VF-53 division on CAP was vectored towards the bogey to intercept and report.

Radar now showed the blip to diverge. There were two aircraft. One turned north while the other proceeded towards the task force. Only 30 miles out the four Corsairs eyeballed the bogey. It was definitely hostile—a twin-engine aircraft sporting the red star of the Soviet air force.

The Russian, realizing he’d been spotted, made a run for it. He nosed down, added power, and headed east toward North Korea. The division leader, Lieutenant (jg) Richard E. Downs, followed. As the F4Us overhauled the hostile, it opened fire. Downs informed the Valley Forge and was told he could shoot back. Downs made a firing pass and missed the target, but his wingman didn’t. The four 20-millimeters set the plane afire, and it spun into the Yellow Sea. Shortly a U.S. destroyer pulled up to the burning wreckage and retrieved the body of a Russian airman. No other bogies approached the task force.

Supporting the Inchon operation on 15 September were the Valley Forge and Philippine Sea (CV-47), by now veterans of Korea, and the newly arrived Boxer (CV-21.) All embarked two to four Corsair squadrons. The Boxer, with a scratch-built air group, numbered 64 F4U-4Bs. Detachments of F4U-5Ns from Composite Squadron Three were also available. They included some old hands at the night-fighter business. The CO was Commander Richard E. Harmer—“Chick” Harmer of the Enterprise’s F4U-2s. In the Valley Forge was Lieutenant Commander William E. Henry, who had been the Navy’s top night-fighter ace in F6F-5Ns during 1944–45. Nocturnal strike and heckler missions were part of VC-3’s duties, but there were specialized daytime jobs, such as skipping bombs into enemy-occupied caves.

Joining the invasion fleet were the escort carriers Sicily and Badoeng Strait with their Marine squadrons. Like Lieutenant Colonel Bill Millington’s Essex Corsairs at Iwo Jima five and a half years before, the flying Leathernecks provided close-in support for the assault troops. They hit the beaches with bombs and rockets, then strafed the area with “20 mike-mike” immediately before the landing craft beached.

Caught at a strategic disadvantage, in three weeks the Reds were pushed back to the 38th Parallel. For naval air, things moved even quicker. Kimpo Airfield, between Inchon and Seoul, was taken on the second day of the landing and made available to tactical aircraft on D-Plus-Three. A Marine night-fighter squadron, VMF(N)-513, flew up from Itazuke Air Base, Japan. Its main equipment was F7F-3N Tigercats, but F4U-5Ns were also available. The skipper was another old-timer, Major Hunter Reinburg, formerly of VMF-121 and 122.

Reinburg’s squadron was attached to MAG-12, then under Colonel Richard C. Mangrum. The group commander was impressed with 513’s work. Destroying enemy transport was a major chore, made no easier when the truck convoys moved at night and doused their lights whenever aircraft were heard. Therefore, the nocturnal prowlers carried parachute flares to keep their targets lit up for brief periods. Dick Mangrum explains the procedure:

“Spotting a truck convoy from a distance, we would start dropping flares to keep it illuminated while an attack section went to work. We got the Navy to provide patrol aircraft to provide the flares and they did a great job—we couldn’t carry enough flares of our own to provide continuous illumination.

“Attacking ground targets under the dim, eerie light of flares over rugged terrain was just about the hairiest way to earn a living there ever was. Pilots were on instruments immediately on pull-up to climb for another run, and only the most competent were effective. Burning and exploding trucks were the only reward, but we had good reason to conclude that these operations contributed to disruption of enemy supply traffic, and were worth the effort.”

From 1951 to 1953 the squadron was credited with eleven night-fighter victories, including two by Corsairs. But the far larger effort was devoted to intruder and strike missions.

In October came the first indication of Red Chinese participation. By the end of that month there was no doubt. The ChiComs were heavily committed, pouring men and supplies across many of the seventeen structures spanning the Yalu River which separates North Korea from Manchuria. At this point, unrestricted air strikes would certainly have impeded the enemy advance by taking out the vital spans. They would not have stopped the Chinese, but the immediate result could only have been beneficial. Air Force B-29s had been targeted against the Sinuiju bridges but were unable to destroy them from high altitude. So TF-77 was called in to do the job—by halfway measures. Absurd political restrictions enabled the carrier pilots only to hit the southern portion of the bridges. China was already in the war; “violation” of her airspace to do the job properly would hardly have complicated the diplomatic situation.

The Sinuiju strikes of early November achieved some success. The “bridge busters” worked in teams of eight ADs, each with a ton of bombs backed up by two to four divisions of F4Us as flak suppression. Enemy AA batteries were well deployed around the approaches, making each attack a risky venture. As many as 16 F9Fs orbited high overhead on MiG CAP. Sinuiju’s highway bridge was knocked down by the TF-77 fliers, operating over 200 miles inland, but the railway spans stayed up. Throughout the rest of the month the Yalu bridges were attacked along the southern bank, allowing AA from the opposite shore to fire unhindered. Even worse, Communist personnel and supply concentrations on the north bank enjoyed total immunity. The Navy and Marine squadrons’ task was akin to trying to stop a milk delivery. They had to break each milk bottle as it arrived instead of killing the cow.

The Chinese continued spilling men and materiel into North Korea, partially with the aid of pontoon bridges. When the weather turned cold enough, the river froze and the Reds went across on the ice. Embittered aviators pondered how soon they would be allowed to bomb the southern portion of the ice pack. Then, with their supply buildup accomplished, the Chinese launched a massive assault on 26 November: a quarter-million men. They more than compensated for the depleted North Korean army, which had almost ceased to exist.

Outnumbered about two to one, the UN troops were forced to give ground. Many units were isolated and enveloped by the onrushing Chinese. Tactical air power was limited at the time, owing to the temporary absence of several carriers. The Valley Forge had departed for a long-delayed overhaul, and the CVEs were engaged in ferrying replacement aircraft. But the CVs Leyte and Philippine Sea were reinforced in mid-December by the light carrier Bataan (CVL-29) while the hard-working Sicily and Badoeng Strait returned. The Black Sheep, who had been flying ground-support missions from Yonpo, flew out to the Sicily off Hungnam on 7 December without interrupting their operations schedule. On the 17th VMF-212 was aboard the Bataan covering the Hungnam evacuation. It had taken over five years for the air admirals to finally get Corsairs aboard a CVL.

All along the line of enemy advance, fighter-bombers delivered their ordnance at point-blank range. The Marines’ patented close-support techniques were never closer. GIs still remark on the pinpoint accuracy of the bent-wing planes which bombed, strafed, and rocketed within fifty yards of the American lines. The wretched 100-degree heat of the summer had given way to the wicked freeze of winter, hitting as low as 25 degrees below zero. In such conditions, napalm could safely be used close to friendly troops. In some instances, Navy and Marine planes fired so close to American lines that expended .50-caliber and 20-mm cases were scattered among the infantrymen.

The pace of operations was unrelenting. The Leyte, for instance, was engaged almost continuously in strikes and support missions from 19 November to 12 December. In this twenty-four-day period, 16 were devoted to air ops—the others to refueling and resupply. The majority of sorties were flown against the hard-pressed Chosin Reservoir. Three fast-carrier planes were lost during this period—all from the Leyte’s Air Group 3.

The first was a Skyraider, damaged by ground fire and force-landed. The pilot was scooped up by the enemy. Both Corsair losses occurred on 4 December, in perhaps the most poignant episode of the war.

Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the Navy’s first black aviator, crash-landed northwest of the reservoir, five miles behind the Chinese lines. His VF-32 squadron mates circling above could see that he was caught in the wreck, which began to burn. An incredibly courageous Massachusetts pilot, Lieutenant (jg) Thomas J. Hudner, Jr., decided to land and try to pull Brown to safety. There was no question of a safe landing in the rugged terrain. Hudner bellied in, scrambled from his Corsair, and ran over to Brown’s F4U. There he found Brown’s leg pinned by the buckled fuselage. Ignoring the sub-zero temperature and nearby enemy troops, Hudner scooped up enough snow to temporarily protect Brown from the flames.

Hudner then tried to pull his friend from the plane, but it was useless. He dashed back to his own F4U, radioed an urgent request for a helicopter with an axe and fire extinguisher, and returned to Brown. A Marine chopper arrived shortly, and with the helo pilot Hudner renewed his efforts to save his squadron mate. But even these supreme efforts were unavailing, as Brown had died. The Navy said that Tom Hudner’s “exceptionally valiant action and selfless devotion to a shipmate sustain and enhance the highest traditions of the United States naval service.” The only conceivable award was the Congressional, which Hudner received in April 1951. He was the fourth and last Corsair pilot so decorated, and surely few men have ever been as deserving.

By February 1951 the Communist forces were withdrawn to defensive positions above the 38th Parallel. The see-saw war up and down the peninsula was now over, and the battle lines stabilized about where the prewar border had been. The truce talks began in July and would drag on for twenty-four months.

Corsairs with other Navy and U.S. Air Force planes, plus British Commonwealth squadrons, had played a substantial role in retrieving the desperate situation during the first year. True, enemy troops and supplies had still gotten through, but nobody on the ground wanted to know what would have happened without tactical air. And F4Us had proven the most useful aircraft to date. In the first ten months of hostilities the Voughts flew 82 percent of all Navy and Marine close-support sorties. They possessed two advantages over the jets: longer loiter time, especially at low level, and greater payload. The Douglas Skyraider enjoyed similar or even greater capability, but was far outnumbered by the F4U.

Among the Navy Corsair squadrons active during this time was VF-113 with Air Group 11. The CO, Commander John O’Neill, wrote his mother in Dallas, saying “Would you please get the Chance Vought test pilot on the phone and tell him I said my plane has had three tails, sixty-six patches, and two engines in it, but I’ll get it back to the Vought plant if I have to swim and tow it.”

Like many of the pilots, some of the Corsairs were involved in their second war. Among the F4U-4s aboard the Essex and Bon Homme Richard were some with logbooks which showed missions over Okinawa and Japan. A -4 of VMF-212 which flew 107 missions in 1945 added another 150 in Korea. And by this time the U-Bird was becoming a multigenerational aircraft. A Marine lieutenant was overheard in the officer’s club of a Korean airfield: “The Corsair was good enough for my old man, so it’s good enough for me.”

So the Navy and Marines settled down to two years of dreary, dangerous, dirty work. Proportionately, their job was three times as important to the overall American air effort as in World War II. As one ComTaskForce-77 admiral said, it was “a day-to-day routine where stamina replaces glamor and persistence is pitted against oriental perseverance.”