Corsairs in Korea II

The last F4U-5, a night fighter, was delivered in October 1951, but a special Corsair was not far behind. Originally the -6, it was redesignated the AU-1. Strictly a ground attack aircraft (A for attack), it incorporated the lessons of Korean combat. Some 110 were delivered from February to October of 1952. They had the -83W engine with only the crankcase blower as a two-speed, single-stage supercharger. High-altitude performance was unnecessary. Twenty-five sheets of armor plate were installed, affording increased protection from ground fire. As a further precaution, the oil coolers which normally faced forward in the wing air inlets—causing the F4U’s characteristic whistle—were placed in the wingroots facing inboard. Armament consisted of four M-3 20-mm cannon, plus ten five-inch rockets or six to ten bombs under the wings, and a centerline rack. Nearly all AU-1s went to the Marines.

There was plenty of work for the “Able Uncles.” With more or less static positions, the Reds were able to beef up their AA defenses. These were usually small to medium caliber, largely fired under optical control, and were both fixed and mobile. But they could throw up torrents of fire, and what the Chinese lacked in accuracy was often compensated for by volume. Deeper in enemy territory, particularly around bridges and permanent facilities, heavy weapons were encountered, occasionally radar-directed. Veteran pilots may have groused about the tropical climate in the Solomons and Central Pacific, but Korea five to eight years later was no better. The flak was often as bad or worse, and biting cold, repetitious missions, and a drab, dreary landscape made the “police action” a frustrating undertaking. Nor was the situation much improved by some ordnance. Perhaps the majority of bombs used by the Navy and Marines were left over from World War II stocks. Some squadrons reported as high as 30 percent duds among 500-pounders.

But infrequently there were events which broke the routine. The light carrier Bataan operated the checkerboard-nosed F4U-4s of VMF-312. The first CO, Major D. P. Frame, was killed in action on 4 April 1951 and was succeeded by Major Frank H. Presley, who was wounded by small-caliber AA on the 20th. Next day the squadron flew forty-two sorties for over 123 hours, including nine armed recon sorties. Captain Phil DeLong, the eleven-plane ace of VMF-212 in the Pacific, led his division near Chinnampo, on the Yellow Sea southwest of Pyongyang.

The flight split by sections, and at about 0645 First Lieutenant Godbey in the second section reported engine trouble. He bailed out over land, and DeLong contacted the Bataan’s CAP to relay the call for a helicopter. Two other recon F4Us diverted to cap Godbey until the chopper arrived.

DeLong and his wingman, First Lieutenant H. Daigh, proceeded north to drop their ordnance. Then Daigh noticed four aircraft closing on DeLong from astern. Almost simultaneously, DeLong called that his plane had been hit, and he split-essed to evade. While DeLong pulled up into the fight, Daigh jumped the first hostile and shot it down. He recognized it as a Yakovlev fighter, probably a Yak-9.

In the short combat, DeLong expertly dispatched two more Yaks. Daigh hit the fourth one, but it was last seen heading into the glare of the sun, trailing smoke. It was claimed a probable, and while a downed enemy pilot was reported 20 miles north of the combat position several days later, confirmation was not forthcoming. Caught at a disadvantage, the Marines’ training and experience in a superior aircraft had totally reversed the situation.

Lieutenant Godbey was retrieved by South Korean troops and returned to the Bataan by helicopter. During three days in late April, VMF-312 flew 128 sorties of all descriptions: strike, recon, CAP, close air support, rescap. Only three resulted in aborts—barely 2 percent. The F4U had become one of the most maintainable aircraft in the inventory.

By June 1952 MAG-12 was operating from K-6, the airfield at Pyongtaek on Korea’s west coast. The group commander was now Colonel Robert E. Galer, a veteran fighter pilot who had won the Medal of Honor as CO of VMF-224 on Guadalcanal ten years earlier. The group numbered about 100 aircraft; F4Us and ADs.

Galer’s deputy was Lieutenant Colonel George C. Axtell, the “Big Ax” of Deathrattler fame from Okinawa. Normally Galer and Axtell flew ADs, but a special strike was assigned that month which required all available Skyraiders. So the CO and exec each took a Corsair.

The target was a North Korean Army headquarters about 125 miles north of K-6. An ambitious plan called for simultaneous low-level and dive-bombing attacks. Surprise was achieved, and just as the strafers pulled off the target, Galer and Axtell led the dive bombers down. The compound was well smothered with bombs and rockets, but one AA gun must have been overlooked.

“He hit me as I made a treetop run up the valley, knocking out the engine,” Galer recalled. The group commander was able to pull up over the ridge before he abandoned the crippled Corsair. But he had trouble getting out, and hit the tail when he jumped. The sharp blow broke three ribs and dislocated one shoulder. Galer hit the ground next to his crashed F4U, “and played hide and seek for the next four or five hours.”

Axtell took charge and organized a CAP, directing the Corsairs and Skyraiders in strafing runs to keep Communist troops from locating Galer. But at length the fighter-bombers ran low on fuel and returned to base. However, Galer was not abandoned. He remembered, “All afternoon, everyone who was heading south, including Air Force and I believe some South Africans, swung by to expend any available ammunition.”

Meanwhile, the injured Marine had found temporary safety in a cave. A Navy helicopter crew operating off an LST in Wonsan Harbor volunteered to attempt a rescue, and entered the area at dusk. Four Corsairs from Axtell’s old unit, VMF-323, provided ResCap and led the chopper in.

Galer coached the helicopter to his cave by emergency radio. “They lowered a sling. I got into it, and away we went down the valley with everyone shooting,” he said.8 The Death Rattlers strafed visible gun positions during the daring escape, allowing the helo to clear the first two ridges. Further along, however, it took some small caliber hits and the pilot began to autorotate in an emergency landing. Providentially, the engine picked up and the Navy pilot, Lieutenant McEachren, climbed to safety above a fog bank.

A PBY out of Japan met the whirlybird well after dark and guided it back to Wonsan. Said Galer, “From my very biased point of view, I thought everyone who participated—the Marines, Navy, and Air Force—did a hell of a job.”

In the fall of 1952 a new menace threatened carrier-based fighter-bombers. MiG-15 jets made some of their deepest penetrations yet into Korean airspace. Royal Navy pilots off the HMS Ocean fought back-to-back combats with the enemy jets on 9 and 10 August. The Hawker Sea Furies claimed one kill, a probable, and three damaged in exchange for one loss and one damaged. The Russian jets were not employed effectively, but the implication was clear: MiGs could bounce the Corsairs at any time.

MAG-12, now under George Axtell, laid plans. Tactics for fighting the faster, better-climbing MiGs were formulated and pilots briefed accordingly. It appeared their new tactics would be put to the test on 7 September during a recon north of Taedong Estuary. “Postcard,” the advanced radar station on Cho-do Island, informed a flight of F4Us that hostiles were high overhead. Subsequent reports indicated the enemy jets splitting to either side, obviously intending to bracket the Corsairs. The Marines initiated a defensive weave at 2,500 feet, waiting for the Reds to pounce. But nothing happened. Apparently the MiGs preferred less wary opponents.

Two days later the Marines made contact. Two flights of VMA-312 (redesignated from VMF) off the Sicily had expended their ordnance on Communist shipping near Chinnampo, southwest of Pyongyang. Thus, the Corsairs were in their best maneuvering configuration when four MiGs appeared from the northwest, over the Yellow Sea.

The MiGs attacked by sections. As the first two began a run, two Corsairs turned into them, forcing a nose-to-nose confrontation. Rather than trade gunfire, the jets climbed upsun. The Marines dived for the deck and headed west, keeping a close watch on their assailants. The MiGs separated, going for both flanks as they had on the 7th. But by the time the F4Us were over Cho-do they had descended through 1,000 feet and the jets turned north.

Next day, 10 September, VMA-312 again tangled with MiGs near Chinnampo. And this time the Communists were more aggressive. Captain Jesse G. Folmar and First Lieutenant Willie L. Daniels launched at 1610 on a two-plane strike against some 300 North Korean troops reported on the south shore of the Taedong River. A TarCap flight was also dispatched, with all Corsairs guarding the same radio frequency in case of trouble.

Coasting in at 10,000 feet, Folmar test-fired his four 20-millimeters and Daniels his six .50 calibers. They located the target area and broke away to explore the estuary before attacking. Three miles east of U.S.-occupied Sock-to Island, Folmar began a turn in his weave. Then he saw two MiG-15s in loose echelon, heading for the Corsairs. In the next few seconds several things happened. Folmar called, “Tally ho, bandits!”10 He went to combat power, jettisoned his ordnance and belly tank, and hollered over the guard channel that he was engaged. At the same time he turned towards the threat, telling Daniels to stay close.

Four hundred yards to port, Daniels shot a look over his right shoulder. A MiG was diving in astern of Folmar. Daniels broke into it and traded gunfire in a brief head-on pass. The MiG turned left and disengaged, allowing Daniels to reverse his turn and complete the weave off Folmar’s starboard beam. Daniels glanced at his airspeed indicator and saw he had only 140 knots on the dial.

While Daniels swapped gunfire with his MiG, Folmar saw two more. They closed rapidly from eight o’clock, and Folmar desperately turned left, trying to bring his guns to bear before the bandits opened fire. But the deflection angle was too great, the closing speed too fast. Tracers passed ahead of the -4B; the Reds had over-deflected.

Apparently one MiG passed between Folmar and Daniels. Folmar rolled into a right-hand bank and found the jet in a climbing left turn. The MiG was temporarily vulnerable. “I pulled up, got him in my gun-sight, gave him about twenty mils lead, and held a five-second burst,” Folmar reported. “I could tell I had him boresighted by the blinking flashes along the left side of the fuselage.”

The MiG emitted a gray stream of smoke which turned black in seconds. As it pitched down slightly and decelerated, the pilot ejected in a tumbling ball of smoke. When the parachute opened, Folmar and Daniels passed close enough to see the MiG driver’s G-suit was afire. The flaming jet went vertically into the water from 7,000 feet.

As the two Corsairs resumed their weave, four more MiGs approached in loose column. Three or four remained overhead, making ineffective high side passes, but others pressed the attack. A MiG came down on Folmar from six o’clock high. “There’s one on your tail,” screamed Daniels, who weaved towards the jet and fired a quick burst. The bandit passed ahead of the F4Us, out of range.

The odds were now seven against two. Folmar decided that was all the advantage he wanted to concede, and called, “Break hard left, down.” The two Marines dived for the water at about 35 degrees, Daniels weaving to the right, when another MiG attacked. “There’s another one on your tail,” Daniels told his leader, but Folmar already knew.

The 33-year-old captain had just begun accelerating in his dive when he saw tracers passing to his left. He felt a severe explosion in the port wing, which shuddered violently. The wing had taken 37-mm hits which gutted it to the inboard gun, knocking off the aileron and four feet of the tip. Folmar had trouble holding the Corsair level; it wanted to roll to port. Yet another MiG began a pass, but Daniels turned towards it and the jet shied away.

Folmar had applied full right stick but the F4U was becoming uncontrollable. He knew he’d never land it in this condition. He transmitted the distress signal, gave his position, and prepared to jump. Between 2,500 and 3,000 feet he rolled out the right side of the cockpit, fell clear, and pulled his ripcord. “I heard an earsplitting cracking sound and I saw another MiG fly by me at very close range, his guns blazing at the tight-spinning Corsair,” Folmar recalled. American antiaircraft guns on nearby Sock-to Island opened fire and the seven MiGs withdrew to the northeast. Folmar dropped into the water only a quarter-mile offshore.

Daniels circled, noting a landing craft and amphibian speeding towards his leader, and headed for the ship. En route, Daniels called the rescue plane and learned Folmar was aboard, in good shape except for an injured arm. The combat had lasted less than eight minutes, and Folmar was rescued in a similar time.

After losing one of their valuable jets to Corsairs, the Communists were not so aggressive for the next few weeks. “Bandit tracks” were seen high over Pyongyang, but not until 29 September did they become belligerent again. A 312 division was heading west out of Chinnampo when four MiGs surprised the Corsairs by attacking out of the sun. They were spotted just as they opened fire, and the Marines broke hard right to evade the attack. Before the Reds completed their pass, the F4Us dived behind the cover of a mountain range. They waited until the jets withdrew to the north. After that, MiG attacks became increasingly rare.

Jesse Folmar and Willie Daniels’s one-sided combat demonstrated the elements of success in fighting jets. A sharp lookout, teamwork, flying skill, and radio discipline defeated the tremendous advantage held by the MiGs. Folmar’s victim was the last enemy jet to fall to a piston-engined aircraft during the war.

There were, however, a few more air combats. In June 1953 the U.S. Fifth Air Force requested a detachment of Corsair night fighters “on loan” to combat the Communist nocturnal hecklers. These were obsolescent prop planes which harried UN troops, flying low, dropping occasional bombs, and depriving many personnel of sleep. They were much too agile for night interception by jets such as the Marine F3D or Air Force F-94.

Two pilots of VC-3 from the Princeton’s Air Group 15 flew to Kimpo on 25 June for briefing and orientation. The F4U-5Ns would be working with Air Force controllers, and it was necessary to establish operating procedures. The Corsairs were then deployed to K-6 at Pyongtaek, south of Seoul. Their patrol area was established along the UN side of the front lines.

The detachment leader was a blonde Louisiana pilot, Lieutenant Guy P. Bordelon, who made the only contacts. In three missions over a three-week period, from 29 June to 16 July, he claimed and was credited with five victories. The record is somewhat unclear. They have variously been reported as four Yak-18s and a Yak-11, or two Yak-18s and three Lagg-9s or -11s. Bordelon and his partner, Lieutenant (jg) Ralph Hopson, returned to the Princeton and left their planes at K-6. Bordelon’s Corsair, named “Annie-Mo” for his wife, was written off by an Air Force pilot shortly thereafter. Impressed with the Navy’s success, the Air Force gave some thought to adopting the F4U as a night intruder since it had no single-engine prop-driven night fighters of its own. By then, however, it didn’t really matter. The uneasy armistice went into effect on 27 July.

In all, Navy and Marine Corps Corsairs were credited with ten aerial victories in Korea. Another veteran F4U pilot, Major John Bolt of Boyington’s old flock, matched his South Pacific total in Korea with six MiG-15s while flying F-86s as an exchange pilot with the 51st Fighter Wing.

At least seven Marine and twenty-eight Navy squadrons flew Corsairs in Korea, but by the end of 1953 only three Marine and seven Navy units retained them. From then on, the U-Bird was steadily replaced. A year after the Korean unpleasantries, only VC-3 and VC-4 still had F4Us, and the latter was the final employer of the old warhorse, in December 1955.

Corsairs were active in the Navy and Marine air reserve program after Korea, but the last of these were stricken from the rolls in mid-1957. Excluding service in reserve squadrons, the F4U’s operational life had lasted over thirteen years. At the time, it was a record for longevity in naval aviation matched only by the Martin PBM flying boat.

It was truly the end of an era.

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