The United States Air Force in the Korean War

This article was originally published on the Department of Defense 50th Anniversary of the Korean War Commemoration website. Unfortunately that website is no longer accessible.

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When North Korea invaded South Korea June 25, 1950, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) was less than three years old. Prior to September 1947, the USAF was the U.S. Army Air Forces. Thus the Korean War was its first conflict—a tough, grueling conflict—as an independent service.

Part of the occupation forces in Japan, the organization responsible for the aerial defense of that country was the Far East Air Forces (FEAF), commanded by Lt. Gen. George E. Stratemeyer. FEAF consisted of three air forces scattered across the western Pacific, the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Twentieth. It was Maj. Gen. Earle E. “Pat” Partridge’s Fifth Air Force in Japan that would bear the brunt of the Korean fighting. Like the other services, FEAF suffered from severe post-World War II cutbacks in budget, equipment, and personnel. Nonetheless, FEAF was ready for action when the war erupted.

The first USAF plane destroyed in the war was a disabled C-54 transport caught by enemy fighters at Seoul’s Kimpo Airfield. Some 1,465 additional USAF planes would be lost to various causes before the conflict ended. Only 10 percent of these losses would be in air-to-air combat. FEAF’s initial actions of the war were defensive, primarily protecting transport aircraft and ships carrying civilians evacuating Korea. On June 27, while performing such cover missions, F-82 Twin Mustang all-weather interceptors shot down three YAK fighters attempting to interfere with the evacuations. A few hours later, four more enemy planes fell to F-80 jet fighters. These seven planes were the first of more than 975 enemy aircraft to be downed by FEAF planes in aerial combat.

helping hand
CC0 A combat wounded soldier gets a helping hand from 1st Lt. A. Drisdale, West Point, Texas, of the 801st Medical Air Evacuation Squadron, during a flight from Korea to Japan aboard the 374th Troop Carrier Wing C-54 “Skymaster”. October 1952

By mid-July FEAF obtained not just air superiority but air supremacy wherein the opposing air force was incapable of effective interference. Such supremacy did not last, however. In November 1950, it appeared that the war might be over soon. Triumphant U.N. units had driven the retreating North Koreans before them and were now approaching the Yalu River and the Manchurian border. Suddenly, overwhelming numbers of Chinese Communist troops entered the battle and drove the U.N. forces back south of the 38th Parallel. Entering the fray at the same time was the MiG-15 jet fighter. With the appearance of this new and very dangerous adversary, the air war entered a new phase.

On November 8, 1950, 1st Lt. Russell Brown, flying an F-80, shot down a MiG-15 in the first all-jet dogfight in history. It was apparent, however, that the MiG-15 was superior to any aircraft then in FEAF’s inventory. The MiG’s pilots were also very good, being (for the most part) veteran Russian fliers. But FEAF soon had a counter to the MiG-15—the superb F-86A (and later, F-86E/F) Sabre. Many of the Sabre pilots were veterans of World War II and their expertise showed. Soon the Sabres and MiGs were mixing it up over northwest Korea, an area that became known as “MiG Alley.” On December 17, 1950, Lt. Col. Bruce Hinton WAS THE FIRST Sabre pilot to score the first of an estimated 818 MiG-15 kills.

While the war turned into a stalemate on the ground, MiG Alley remained a hot spot throughout the war. For a time the B-29s continued bombing targets in northwest Korea by day, but when MiG-15s shot down five Superfortresses in a week in October 1951, the big bombers began attacking only at night. Day after day, though, the Sabres (joined by F-84 Thunderjets or F-80s) swept into MiG Alley to meet the MiG-15s rising from their fields in Manchuria. Although the U.S. government directed that these fields were “off limits” to the FEAF aircraft, some of these planes occasionally strayed across the border in “hot pursuit” of enemy aircraft.

For the last two years of the war ground fighting was occasionally heavy and bloody and ground was lost and regained by both sides. The front line (which eventually ran from just south of the 38th Parallel on the west coast, along a line northeast to above the Parallel on the east coast) remained relatively static. FEAF aircraft continued to bomb bridges, warehouses, railroads, and other targets in North Korea in an effort to end the stalemate. Three interdiction operations, two named STRANGLE and another called SATURATE, tried to paralyze the enemy’s transportation system upon which he relied for supplies. Weather and an inability to execute sustained night attacks thwarted these efforts.

Much more successful was FEAF’s campaign to employ air power to pressure the Chinese into accepting an Armistice satisfactory to the United States. This “air pressure” campaign was perhaps a key factor in finally ending the war. Attacks, in June 1952, on four hydroelectric generating complexes at Suiho, Chosin, Fusen, and Kyosen opened the campaign. These raids were spectacularly successful; North Korea experienced a nearly total loss of electric power for two weeks and never regained its former level of generating capacity before the end of the war. Manchuria, too, suffered the loss of a quarter of its supply of electricity.

map korea

These onslaughts, though very damaging and painful, still did not bring the Communists to the Armistice table, but even more harrowing onslaughts were forthcoming. These took the form of attacks on North Korea’s irrigation dams, which in essence hit the enemy in the breadbasket. In May 1953, FEAF planes shattered three of North Korea’s 20 irrigation dams. The resulting floods wiped out roads, railroad tracks, and thousands of acres of rice fields. Even though the enemy soon repaired the damage, they had to reduce the water levels in all the dams so as to prevent flooding in case of attack. These precautions, however, also reduced the water available to the remaining rice crops.

The war dragged on for two more months and then, on July 27, 1953, it was over as the Armistice was at last signed. For FEAF the war ended in a flurry of action. In these last months the MiGs appeared in greater numbers than ever. In one furious battle on June 30, 16 MiGs fell to Sabre guns — the most ever in a single air combat action involving the F-86 jet aircraft.

A statistical summary reveals the magnitude and ferocity of the Korean air war. FEAF grew from a force of 33,625 personnel in June 1950, to nearly 112,200 officers and airmen in July 1953. In the summer of 1950, FEAF controlled just 16 groups, 44 squadrons, and 657 aircraft. At its highest point, in the summer of 1952, FEAF controlled 20 groups, 70 squadrons, and 1,441 aircraft.

During the war, FEAF units flew 720,980 sorties and delivered 476,000 tons of ordnance. For these numbers FEAF estimated it had killed nearly 150,000 North Korean and Chinese troops and claimed the destruction of more than 975 aircraft, 800 bridges, 1,100 tanks, 800 locomotives, 9,000 railroad cars, 70,000 motor vehicles, and 80,000 buildings. This damage was inflicted at the cost of 1,841 men killed, wounded and missing, and 750 aircraft destroyed by the enemy. Four USAF fliers were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions in the war. The furious air battles in the North Korean skies also resulted in 38 USAF pilots scoring five or more victories to become aces. Leading the way was Capt. Joseph C. McConnell Jr., with 16 MiGs to his credit.

No one service can claim to have single-handedly won the war. But each contributed immeasurably to the effort, and the Air Force was no exception. The brave men and women who served in the FEAF answered their country’s call to defend freedom in a far away land. Many paid with their lives, and all who served deserve this nation’s gratitude. The men and women of FEAF know first hand that Freedom is not Free.

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