Thursday, December 3, 2020

"If you can't handle MiGs, don't fly in MiG Alley"

This report addresses the experiences of USAF B-29 bomber and F-86 fighter crews while battling over a section of northwestern North Korea (DPRK) known as “MiG Alley.”

To get your time bearings North Korean forces swept across the 38th parallel separating North from South Korea on June 25, 1950. This invasion surprised the US.

It would take two more huge surprises to the US before MiG-Alley took form.

This report will skip almost all Korean War history in order to highlight stories told by F-86 and B-29 air crews.

These graphics done by PBS walk you through the history you need as background for this report. Pay particular attention to the graphics showing US forces moving into North Korea and then retreating.

B-29 bombers, the type used against Japan in WWII, came from Guam and Japan on June 28, 1950 and began bombing targets to impede the North Korean invasion. US ground forces had to hustle over from Japan. US air forces obtained air superiority virtually from the outset.

B-29s attacked strategic and tactical targets virtually unchallenged. The Soviets and China did provide anti-aircraft artillery (AAA) to the DPRK to fight off the B-29s, damaging them and forcing them above 20,000 ft.

Let’s get right into events that drove the formation of MiG Alley. 

Fundamentally, MiG-Alley was about B-29s bombing Chinese and North Korean ground forces and their logistics lines in northwest DPRK. The MiGs attacked the B-29s. The F-86s defended them and fought off the MiGs.

During August 1950, the Soviets secretly deployed 122 Soviet-built MiG-15s to Antung air base, China, on the Yalu River. The Soviets had secretly sent an air division to that base. More would arrive at Sinuiju air base, DPRK, directly across the Yalu from Antung.

A USAF RB-29 reconnaissance aircraft spotted 75 MiG-15s on the ramp at Antung on October 18, 1950. Deployment of so many MiG-15s to the region was a surprise to the US. 

The swept-winged MiG-15 was state of the art, arguably one of the best in the world at the time, certainly the best air superiority fighter on the Korean Peninsula at the time of its arrival.

US reconnaissance flights over northwestern DPRK then spotted these MiG-15 fighter aircraft flying in DPRK airspace, part of the overall MiG-15 surprise.

The US military leadership in the region did not consider this a major upheaval. It thought the war was almost over. By late October 1950 UN ground forces, mostly US, had fought their way right up to the Yalu river and the Chinese border.

However the news about the MiG-15 attracted the attention of B-29 pilots and crews flying up in this area.

Another surprise to the US lie in waiting. Chinese military forces secretly crossed the Yalu River on October 19, 1950. By November 22, 1950 they had about 250,000 troops in the DPRK with another 150,000 on their way. The Chinese launched a major offensive into the Korean peninsula on November 24, 1950. They immediately faced off with UN-US ground forces and kept driving them southward.

Despite the MiG-15s in the northwest region, the B-29s were able to conduct their missions against invading Chinese forces in the ROK through February 1951 relatively unopposed. They ran their bombing runs at low altitudes down to about 10,000 ft. However, with the Chinese invasion well underway, it was only a matter of time when the B-29s would face a grave threat.

The F-86 Sabren was the only aircraft the US had at the time that could match the MiG-15. There were no F-86s on the Korean peninsula at the time.

The 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing (FIW) deployed its three F-86 squadrons to Johnson AB, Japan from the US in late November 1950. Aircraft and crews rotated between the ROK and Japan.

The 51st FIW, based in the ROK, was equipped with the F-80. Two squadrons of the 51st transitioned to the F-86 in November 1950 with the third transitioning in May 1951.

The F-86s flew their first combat mission, an armed reconnaissance mission up near the Yalu, on December 19, 1950.  Through the end of December 1950, F-86 pilots shot down some 15 MiGs and the MiGs got one F-86. The aerial fighting, the first by jet against jet, occurred in northwestern DPRK which came to be known to airmen as MiG Alley. Nonetheless, USAF B-29s continued bombing in this region.

On February 25, 1951, eight MiG-15s attacked four B-29s while they were conducting a raid against Sunchon just north of the DPRK capital, Pyongyang. No B-29s were lost. Orders were then issued for the bombers to fly at 20,000 ft. in defensive formations. They were also to be escorted by F-80C and F-84E aircraft, both of which were no match for the MiG-15.

The hammer fell on the B-29s on April 12, 1951. Twelve MiG-15s attacked 48 B-29s bombing a railroad bridge. The MiGs shot down three B-29s, and damaged seven more. By October 27, 1951, five more B-29s had been lost with 20 more heavily damaged. The worst day for the B-29s occurred on "Black Tuesday over Namsi" on October 23, 1951 when nine B-29s launched to attack the Namsi airfield, which was under construction. Six of the nine B-29s were lost.

The MiGs had great advantage being based so close to MiG Alley. The MiGs would pop back and forth between Antung, China and Sinuiju, DPRK, flying out of Antung over the DPRK, and then immediately back to China, or out of Sinuiju and back to base or to their safe haven at Antung.

The F-86s had a much longer flight. There was no air refueling, and they could spend only about 25 minutes in the area before having to return to base. China was off-limits to US air power. MiGs could cross the Yalu in a matter of minutes.

The F-86 pilots often flew along the Yalu and watched the MiGs take off from their sanctuary airfield. Colonel Bud Mahurin, USAF, an experienced WWII and Korean War pilot, said he and five other F-86s crossed over into China deliberately.

All six of the pilots were summoned to HQ 5th AF. Mahurin described General Frank Everest, the 5th AF commander, walking into the room where the pilots were standing, “mad as he could be." Mahurin recalled Everest yelling:

"You guys are violating the demarcation line; you’re crossing the Yalu River. It’s got to stop! All the trouble this will cause with the State Department! I am going to court-martial every one of you. I was in my control center just the other day, watching on radar. I saw your pilots take off, fly over the Yalu River, up to Mukden, 200 miles north of the Yalu, circle Mukden a couple times, then fly back down and land at the Fifty-First Wing base. My God, this has really got to stop!”

Then Mahurin said:

“We all stood up at attention. He stalked out of the conference room and slammed the door. We were all looking at each other, when he poked in his head back in and said, ‘If you’re gonna do it, for god’s sake, turn off your identification friend or foe system, because we can track you on radar.’"

Broadly speaking, the MiG-15 and F-86 were very good aircraft, each with their pluses and minuses. Colonel Mahurin called it a worthy adversary for the F-86, saying, “The MiG and the F-86 were fairly similar, both in appearance and performance.” He went on to comment:

“Because the MiG-15 was lighter than an F-86 it could climb a little faster. While its forward speed during the climb wasn’t quite as great as an F-86, it could still climb at a higher angle of attack, and so, it appeared to us that the MiG could really climb. And, because of its lightness, the MiG-15 could reach a higher altitude than the F-86, high enough so that we couldn’t reach them, up above 45,000 feet.”

He noted however that the tactics employed were largely drawn from WWII tactics, just at a faster speed and eating up more airspace.
The MiG’s huge advantage was it could accelerate to higher altitudes and fight there. Its major disadvantages were it was unstable in a dive and the pilot could not see 360 degrees. The F-86 had a 360 degree canopy. it had a very stable gun platform, increasing its accuracy, and was quite stable at high speeds. Its ability to prevail at lower altitudes was also a big advantage. And the F-86 could dive.

Let’s now turn to B-29 and F-86 aircrew stories.

Lt. Colonel Earl McGill, B-29 pilot, 307th Bombardment Wing (BW), Kadena, Okinawa, Japan

Lt. Colonel Earl McGill was a B-29 pilot during the Korean War and authored the book Black Tuesday over Namsi. This mission over the Namsi airfield occurred on October 23, 1951. The airfield at the time was under construction, leading some crew to question why they had to go there. It was a daylight bombing run and considered an epic air battle of the Korean War. Nine B-29s went on this mission organized into three flights. McGill writes:

“Two of the nine were severely damaged (by anti-aircraft artillery-AAA on the way to the target). Moments before ‘bombs away,’ a swarm of MiG-15s, the newest, fastest jets in the Soviet arsenal, attacked the bomber force. Three B-29s were shot down over the target area and three more were so severely damaged they were forced to make emergency landings at a forward base. Only one of the remaining three escaped major battle damage. In the bloodiest air battle of the Korean War, six bombers and 27 lives were lost. Twenty crew members were wounded and eight taken prisoner … Factually, the pilots who attacked the B-29s were members of the elite 64th Fighter Aviation Group, a crack, battle seasoned unit from the Soviet Union.”

McGill said daylight B-29 missions were stopped after this terrible day.

McGill also reported:

"On my first mission, we were briefed for heavy MiG interception. I was so scared on that day that I’ve never been frightened since, even when I flew combat missions in the B-52 (over Vietnam).  Earlier, the ready-room chatter had been filled with black humor. The guy who briefed the navigation route had been an undertaker. He delivered the briefing in an undertaker’s stove-pipe hat."

Lt. Colonel Bruce Hinton, USAF, commander 336th Fighter Intercept Squadron (FIS), Kimpo AFB, ROK

Lt. Colonel Bruce Hinton, was the first to engage the MiG-15 with the F-86. Hinton commanded the 336th FIS. John Wellington Ennis has produced a graphic representation of the fight. The following is drawn from that.

Hinton flew his F-86 against a Soviet piloted MiG-15 on December 17, 1950. He shot down the Russian in the first combat mission for the F-86.

Hinton led a flight of four. The enemy did not know the F-86 was in theater. Hinton led his flight in at low speed, trying to draw the enemy to attack. The MiGs took the bait.

Hinton’s leading wingman called out “Bogeys crossing the Yalu River at nine o’clock and closing fast.” Four MiG-15s came in on the attack. Hinton’s strategy was to lure the MiGs in close and attack first. He told his men never to let a MiG-15 on his flight’s tail, he said, “at all, (n)ever.” 

The enemy always used Ground Controlled Intercept (GCI) when flying. The GCI controller ordered the MiGs by radio to get in close and identify what they were up against. They passed underneath the F-86s and saw the swept wing design. As the MiGs passed underneath, Hinton ordered his flight to drop tanks. The Sabres then broke right and hit the throttle. He said he had to pick up speed, hitting 0.85 Mach or so. They then swung down and came at the enemy’s five o’clock and closed fast. 

After just a bit, just about all the aircraft were at about 0.94 Mach, which meant that whoever could turn the best now had the advantage, since there was no longer a speed advantage. Note here that the F-86 had a very slight speed advantage, 685 mph vs. 670.

The MiG flight split defensively. Two MiGs positioned themselves such that Hinton was able to sneak in behind for a gun kill. The fight occurred at about 1500 ft. Hinton fired. To his surprise, it looked like his rounds were bouncing off the MiG. He kept firing. The enemy pilot popped his speed brake hoping the Sabre would pass him to reverse positions. Hinton slowed down, and came right up to and underneath the MiG, close enough to see the rivets. The MiG then decided to dive. Hinton followed and gave the MiG a long burst of .50 caliber. He hit him. The MiG crashed into the land below. The rest of the MiGs used their climbing speed advantage to get out of the fight and escape back to Manchuria, China.

Pfc. Gene Fisher, B-29 gunner, 30th Bomb Squadron, Kadena, Okinawa, Japan

Note bene: This is a story about a North Korean air attack against a B-29 by a Yak-9U rather than a MiG-15. It has been included to give you an idea what happens inside a B-29 when they are hit.

“We were approaching the bridges over the Han River near Seoul, with thirty-five 500 lb. bombs in the bomb-bait, when three Yak pilots came right up at us as we were on the bomb run … They came in from behind, but dropped back out of range of our guns. We took hits in the bomb-bay, and Captain (John) Edenbo (the pilot) dropped them all and dived into a cloud. By then we had taken several hits from the Yak.

“From up front, someone said over the intercom that they needed the first aid kit. It was right beside me, so I grabbed it and went through the tunnel up to the front. There were bullet holes everywhere on the flight deck and we lost pressurization. Captain Edenbo had gotten hit. I’ll never forget the sight of him lying there on the flight deck with blood all over his face. I thought he was dead, but I took out the kit and tried to help him.

“Going back to Kadena (Okinawa, Japan) we couldn’t get the rear bomb-bay doors closed. The electrical systems were shot away. We had no radio. We got into a storm, but somehow that plane kept going all the way back to Kadena. We didn’t know how much damage we had until we landed. They counted over 100 holes in the plane. Captain Edenbo survived, but that mission was a tough one.”

Note bene: Captain Edenbo received the Silver Star for his bravery and mission completion.

Colonel Walker Melville “Bud” Mahurin, special assistant to the commander, 51st FIW and commander 4th FIW, callsign “Honest John”

Bud Mahurin was a F-86 pilot. He also fought in WWII and was a flying ace. The photo shows him after returning from a mission in 1943.

Mahurin shot down two MiGs and 1.5 more.

He was flying his F-86 at 37,000 ft. when attacked. He would then fly “around and around down to the ground and back up to 26,000, before I shot him down.”

He said it was very much like the way pilots flew in WWI and WWII. He said his slab tail enabled him to outperform a MiG especially when he caught him by surprise. The slab tail allowed him to turn faster than the MiG. He knew he could already dive faster than the MiG and pull out of the dive more quickly. He said he never tried to climb with the MiG, because he could not compete there. He tried to keep the fight at altitudes in which he was at his best. If the MiG gained an advantage, the F-86 would normally get out of there and leave.

Mahurin said he was allowed to visit an Allied radar site up near the Yalu. Several controllers could speak Russian and could hear MiG-15 controller radio communications. They were certain the pilots were Russian. That said, Mahurin also noted there were some Chinese and North Korean pilots. When the Allied controllers noted them flying, they would call the F-86s and say “There was a Koshun flight in the air.” That meant they were Chinese or North Korean. The F-86s knew they were not good pilots and would yearn to go after them. He said sometimes their ground controllers would mistakenly intermingle Russian flown aircraft with the others. One result was the Russians might shoot down one of their allies.

He commented further that a Russian pilot bailed out of his MiG over the Yellow Sea. The USAF would send in rescue helicopters, but MiGs would come into the area and shoot their own pilot in the water to make sure he was not rescued and paraded before the cameras.

He mentioned in an interview a very successful tactic they employed against the Russians. He discussed how the F-86s would split their flights into elements of two:

“Two aircraft here, two there, two there, with flight leader discretion. Each leader of two aircraft could go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, until the commander in the air sent out different instructions. As a result, if we had forty-eight aircraft in the air, there were two here, two there, two there, all around in the sky.

“The Russians couldn’t send up a big group of MiG-15s, attacking two aircraft with forty, it didn’t make sense. It’s a waste of airpower. So, the Russians would get squared away and try to send in big numbers of MiGs to our little two and two and two. In the meantime, the first guy that saw the formation would say, ‘I can see them, they’re in the vicinity of so and so.’ So, all our pairs would head for that location. As the Russians came down into our area, elements here and there would start to tag them until we had all we needed to attack. That represented a really big change in tactics, and it was highly successful, because we were able to get into them pretty good after that.”

On May 13, 1952, he was strafing enemy forces and was hit by enemy ground fire. He crash-landed, was captured, and spent over a year in confinement. He was eventually released after intense torture and interrogation and returned to active duty.

Bill Welsh, crew member 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron (SRS), Johnson AB, Japan

MiGs jumped a RB-29 which was taking photographs of the Yalu River bridges on November 9, 1950. They hit both port engines, disabling them. Welsh was on the ground at Johnson AB, Japan. He watched the RB-29 limping to the base and remarked:

Actual photo of the RB-29 after crash landing
“The two left engines had feathered props, and a huge ‘V’ shaped chunk was torn out of the trailing edge of the left wing … But then they made an approach and lowered the gear and flaps. As they neared the runway on final approach, I heard someone yell, ‘Damn! They’re gonna make it!’ No sooner had he said it, than the airplane seemed to stagger and fall off on the left wing. In what seemed like slow motion, it rolled about ninety degrees and hit the ground just off the end of the runway. A huge cloud of smoke erupted as crash crews raced to put out the fire. The entire front of the plane was rolled up in a ball, but the aft section of the fuselage had broken off just behind the wing and ridden up over the wreckage. They had made it all the way back to Johnson on two engines, but on final approach, the left wing stalled and it went in. Everyone in the forward compartment was killed except Cpl. Harry Levene who had been up front for the expected crash landing.”

Five souls were lost.

Levene was the gunner, and prior to his aircraft getting hit, he had shot down one of the attacking MiG-15s for the first B-29 jet victory of the Korean War.

Major Frederick Corbin “Boots” Blesse, 334th FIS operations officer, Kimpo AB, Seoul ROK

Boots Blesse, a F-86 driver, shown here in 1952, said he loved the way his Sabre could turn. He also said forget trying to out-climb the MiG, but instead work the turns to outmaneuver him. He said most of the aircraft he shot down were within 400-1,000 ft.

Blesse would become a leading fighter ace, credited with shooting down nine MiG-15s and one La-9, one probable MiG-15 kill and three more damaged during the course of flying 121 Sabre missions.

As the squadron operations officer, Blesse would say: “Go get a MiG!”

He was irritated that the squadron’s morale slumped after Major George Davis, USAF was shot down and killed. Davis had shot down 12 aircraft and would later receive the Medal of Honor (posthumous). Commenting on the problem, Blesse said:

“Many guys just wanted to fly their hundred missions and go home. I had worked hard to get over there. To me it was a great privilege to be assigned to a fighter squadron in Korea at that time, and get some air-to-air experience. I really couldn’t understand their viewpoint. After I got to be operations officer we made a lot of changes. I flew with all four of the flight commanders. Two of them I flipped off some place. I took younger guys in the squadron and made them flight commanders. They had already exhibited a lot of moxy up in the air and were going to be serious about getting MiGs.”

Blesse remarked about MiG-15s fleeing MiG-Alley back into China:

"It was very frustrating because we couldn't get at them. You'd get a MiG in trouble and he'd streak across the Yalu before you could shoot him down. You'd have to break off and let him go.

"If we had the enemy in sight and had engaged him, we could go across the border and shoot him down. But under no circumstances could we shoot airplanes or anything else that was on the ground. We could only shoot an airplane down if we were in hot pursuit.”

Blesse, who would rise to major general, wrote a manual entitled, “No guts, no glory.” He designed it to train new fighter pilots. This is an excerpt:

“As his confidence grows, so does his enthusiasm. Enthusiasm increases interest, which in turn pays dividends in overall accomplishment. All of these qualities together add up to the one thing a training program must produce if the graduate pilots are to be successful in combat—aggressiveness.”

In an interview after the war, Blesse added to this idea of aggressiveness:

”To be serious about air-to-air combat, first you gotta want to do it. Secondly you need some previous tactical experience in jets. You needed some dogfighting, some idea of closure rates and turn rates, how to kill air speed, and how to gain air speed. But most importantly, you had to be aggressive.

“A lot of guys started out without anything but aggressiveness and gained the experience they needed right there in Korea. Some got shot down trying to get it. Others were more successful and did very well.”

He noted he saw his first MiG on his second mission, flying with Col. Mahurin. Then he did not see another one until his 48th mission.  He said, “The MiGs just weren’t flying in my assigned area.” He flew three missions per day while the MiG pilots usually only flew one. He said, “It took an awful lot of luck to be flying when the MiGs were flying.”

Lastly with Colonel Blesse, who has a goldmine of insight, he talked about tactics: flight lead, wingman (nr 2), element leader (nr 3) and his wingman (nr 4). To start, he did not want to fly defensively. The idea was to “get a MiG.”

He retrained his pilots so the wingman would get up close to his lead, close enough to where the wingman could read the numbers on his lead’s tail. That allowed him to stay up with the lead. He then wanted the wingman to fall back a bit, then “pull into trail.” That enabled the lead to do anything he wanted and enabled the wingman to look all around, all the time, to make sure his lead could make an attack.

He wanted the element lead to stay high to keep up with the lead. He highlighted that numbers 2 and 4 were not shooters, they were lookers, usually the newer pilots. They protected numbers 1 and 3. Blesse had little use for “Captain Milktoast.”

First Lt. John Wagenhalls, Bombadier, 307th BW, Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan

First Lt. John Wagenhalls has talked about the “Black Tuesday” mission through MiG Alley, mentioned earlier:

"One of the missions that I flew was October 23, 1951, the so called  'Black Tuesday Mission.'  . . .  I was flying as Bombardier in the #2 position in C Flight and Peter Dempsey was the Aircraft Commander... From the battle damage we sustained it would be the most likely position in the formation. The bomb doors on the right side of the aircraft were shattered from cannon fire, while those on the opposite side suffered only minor damage. I was able to wire the pieces of the bomb bay doors in the up position sufficiently to allow us to fly the aircraft back to Kadena.
"Fortunately no one aboard the aircraft was injured in the melee. During and after the attack it seemed that the B29s were scattered, as not one of the flights remained intact. It was almost as if each airplane was on its own since at least one aircraft from each flight was destroyed almost immediately in the first attack. The firepower effectiveness was severely reduced as, basically, no formation still existed. I believe we were the first crew to reach Kadena from Korea that fateful day. If the MiGs would have continued their attack they could have shot us all down."

Captain Manuel J. “Pete” Fernandez, 334th FIS, Suwon, ROK

Capt. Fernandez was a bit different than other F-86 pilots. He liked to engage the MiG-15 at higher altitudes, while most of the others preferred to do it down lower. The MiG could climb much higher than the F-86 and then dive down on them. 

Fernandez was with the 334th FIS of the 51st FIW, Suwon, ROK. He got most of his kills at high altitude. He would cruise at 0.9 Mach at 45-48,090 ft. Then his flight would turn off the Identification Friend or Foe (IFF) system and speed into Manchuria for a few miles before heading back out. 

He was widely know for sneaking across the border to hunt MiGs.

What he learned was that by doing this, he would end up in the six o’clock position to the MiGs coming out of Antung. The MiGs would be climbing out and heading south. They did not know Pete was even there until he attacked. Sometimes he’d fly within the MiG formations. The MiG’s top speed was about 0.92 Mach so seldom could get on his tail. He was credited with 14.5 kills, making him the #3 ace.

Clyde Durham, B-29 gunner, 28th Bomb Squadron, Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan

“As a result of the MiG-15 attacks, strategy was changed and now we were flying almost 100 percent of our combat missions at night. In fact the undersides of less than half our B-29s had been painted black. It wasn't until after we had flown four or five missions that all the B-29s at Kadena had been coated with black paint on their undersides.

“On our third combat mission we were assigned to fly an aircraft named "Command Decision," arguably the most famous B-29 of the entire Korean War … The 28th Bomb Squadron's "Command Decision" was the only B-29 of the entire Korean War to shoot down five MiGs … Observers outside the crew verified all five kills. Perhaps even more amazing was the fact that three of those five kills were scored on one mission, two by the right gunner and one by the tail gunner.

“Our combat missions averaged about nine and a half hours flying time with our longest being 12 hours, and the shortest 8:05. Since all but one of our missions was flown at night and the North Koreans and Chinese Communists didn't have a lot of radar-equipped MiG-15s, we didn't have to worry too much about fighters.

“Anti-aircraft fire was another story. Depending on the target, the enemy's radar-controlled guns and searchlights ranged from very light to very heavy. From our crew's point of view our worst mission was our 18th, on September 30, 1952 . Our target that night was the Namsam-ni Chemical Plant.

"As we turned on the IP (initial point after which they would start their bombing run), we could see the lights and guns picking up each B-29 as it neared the target area. When we closed on the target, we began picking up anti-aircraft fire and searchlights. At first they weren't close but they rapidly began getting our range, speed and altitude. We could hear shrapnel rattling on the skin of the airplane. Suddenly, the searchlights locked on us. We immediately felt naked and exposed, as though the whole world was looking at us. The interior of our B-29 was brighter than full daylight.

“Just a few minutes from the bomb release point we felt, heard and saw a huge explosion in the left wing near the rear of number one engine nacelle. A large stream of smoke poured back from number one engine and the left wing went up and the right down from the force of the explosion. I reported the smoke just as another explosion hit us on the underside of the plane between the lower aft turret and the tail compartment. This was immediately followed by a flak burst under the right wing. The second and third hits were not as strong as the first one but they were strong enough to get our attention.

“The AC gave the order to salvo the bombs so we could get the hell out of there! The bombardier had a salvo switch in the nose and we had one in the gunner's compartment. Capt. Mohr immediately hit his switch and nothing happened. The CFC gunner had climbed down from his position and flipped our switch. Still, not a single bomb dropped. This is what's known as a very high pucker moment.

“We were still locked in lights and catching shrapnel. The AC gave the order to prepare to bail out. The next command would be, ‘Bail out!’ We were deep in North Korea, hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, searchlights and guns were locked on us. Flak was still peppering the aircraft and with 20,000 pounds of bombs plus 3,000 gallons of fuel remaining, we could follow Apache into oblivion at any second. I was anxious and worried but the only thing really on my mind in those few seconds was, ‘We're going to have to bail out and as I'm floating down in my parachute one of those anti-aircraft shells on the way up is going to go right through me on my way down!' It wasn't until much later, after we were out of danger that I realized there were many other unpleasant things more likely to happen to me than being pierced in mid-air by an anti-aircraft shell!

“Fortunately we never got the final bailout command. Suddenly, one of the salvo switches worked and all 40 of our 500-pounders dropped instantly. Relieved of that 20,000 pounds of weight in a split second, the B-29 surged several hundred feet upward. At the same time, the AC racked the plane hard over on its left wing and into a sharp descent. We lost three or four thousand feet very quickly. The searchlights and guns left us far behind. The AC quickly began a crew check as he leveled off and no one had a scratch!

“The aircraft was not so lucky. Smoke was still streaming back from the left wing. The flight engineer, in checking his instrument panel, reported an almost total loss of fuel from number one wing tank. We realized then that it was vaporized fuel and not smoke that had been streaming back from engine number one. The miracle was there was no explosion after the hit and no huge fireball to consume our bomber.

"With all the fuel lost from that tank we didn't have enough remaining to get back to Okinawa so we diverted to Itazuki Air Force Base near Fukuoka on Honshu, the southernmost island of Japan. The next day we all got the shakes after seeing the four-foot by two-foot hole blown completely through the left wing, almost directly through the center of the number one fuel tank. God was truly protecting us that night!”

Captain Joseph McConnell, 39th FIS, Suwon, ROK

Capt. Joe McConnell has a wild story to tell. On April 12, 1953, McConnell was chasing a MiG. The MiG he was chasing was flown by a Soviet pilot, Semen Fedorets. Fedorets had just shot down Lt. Robert Niemann, the Russian’s fifth victory. He then spotted McConnell. Fedorets got on McConnell’s tail and slightly below him. McConnell’s wingman told him to break left, which he did, and Fedorets fired and hit McConnell’s aircraft.

McConnell’s F-86 had been hurt badly, but he put it into a high G-barrel roll, causing Fedorets to overtake him.

When a pilot conducts a high G barrel roll, usually his attacker is directly behind him. The pilot then climbs and turns, let’s say to the right, and rolls his aircraft over 360 degrees. 

The attacker, seeing his prey break right, does the same but the barrel roll eats up time and the attacker flies past the prey and now, in this case, McConnell, is right on his tail ready to fire. And fire he did.

McConnell fired his .50 calls and forced Fedorets to eject. McConnell’s aircraft was smoking, he had lost most of his power, but he was able to stay in control and get her to the coast where he bailed out, rescued within minutes.

On May 18, 1953 McConnell shot down three MiGs, giving him 16 victories, the most of any Sabre pilot in this war. He flew in a flight of six F-86s, but four aborted, leaving him and his wingman, Dean Abbott. They chased two MiGs across the Yalu in hot pursuit. McConnell was a believer in his guns and radar gunsight system, known for its accuracy.  He shot at one of the MiGs with long-range bursts, and hit the MiG.

Then some MiGs chased after his wingman, Abbott. McConnell fired at one and scored his 15th kill. Abbott radioed there must be 30 MIGs out there, to which McConnell replied, “Yeah and we’ve got them all to ourselves.” On that, they returned to base. He flew another mission later and scored his 16th MiG-15 kill. Incredibly. He did all this in the span of four months.

In reading the citation to accompany the Distinguished Service Medal for Capt. McConnell, Abbott’s estimate was close —- they were being chased by 28 MiG-15s. That was normal for the Russians. They would fly in formations of from 50 to 100. In one battle, 50 MiG-15s flew against 28 F-86s. Each side lost one aircraft!

Lt. General Glenn Barkus, commander 5th AF, ordered McConnell to return to the US right away, assuring he would not lose him to a MiG after his scoring 16 kills.

First Lieutenant Chuck Overby, B-29 co-pilot, 93rd Bomb Squadron, Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan

“I will never forget the brilliance of radar searchlight 'lock-ons' to our ship that nicely silhouetted us so that the MIG-15s could have a ball taking pot-shots at us in all our illuminated brilliance. Fortunately for my crew, one of our enlisted crew members had special training in something called 'electronic countermeasures' (ECM). This equipment enabled him to quite often detect the radar signal for the antiaircraft guns and the searchlights that had locked on to our aircraft and destroy the ‘lock-on.' I will never forget the blinding brilliance of those ‘searchlight’ lock-ons, and the relief at having our ECM man take us back to pure darkness when he destroyed the radar connection.

“During our time in Korean operations, we bombed with a special kind of system using aerial navigation technology – called, SHORAN, (Short Range Navigation). This system was reasonably accurate in placing bombs in the target area.

"With this SHORAN bombing system, all 15 to 20 B-29s on a night’s mission, with navigation lights off, flew exactly the same flight path, spaced a couple of minutes apart, and with 500 feet of vertical separation. Each crew would send a coded radio signal when they arrived at the ‘initial point’ for the bomb-run, a distance of between 20 to 25 miles before the target. This was done so that one B-29 would not drop its cargo on another B-29 below it.”

Captain John Lowery, 334th FIS, Kimpo, ROK

“Fighter versus fighter, as I knew it in Korea, was the greatest sport that I've ever participated in … I was awed, and I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. It was like walking into a movie... just like a movie set. I was really impressed.

"The F-86 had absolutely no flaws. We even had a song - - Just give me an F-86, the airplane that knows all the tricks. She'll loop, roll and spin, but she'll never auger in."

Lowery described what he called “coffin corner.” He described it this way:

"As you climb above 20,000 feet your stall speed goes with you. So at 45,000 feet, 0.8 Mach, you're at 205 indicated and your stall speed might be 175. Now you're getting to 51,000 feet, and 0.8 Mach is 185 indicated, and your stall speed is 175. It's like flying on the edge of a ball bearing and you're just ready to fall off at any moment." 

Lowery said he'd been in mission debriefings and heard other F-86 pilots say they'd been following a flight of four MiG-15s when one of them would suddenly stall and start spinning:

"Once they get into a spin, a MiG-15 won't recover. It has a flat spin mode, too. An F-86 pilot could go into a spin at 45,000 feet and spin to 10,000 and recover like a T-34. It's just a wonderful airplane."

As a side note, during late 1952, twenty percent of Sabre victories over the MiG-15 occurred without firing a shot. During the last four months of 1952, thirty-two MiGs went into sudden and uncontrollable spins while being chased. Only two pilots were able to recover. The rest ejected or crashed. It took until 1953 for the MiG pilots to better acquit themselves to handle these spins.

Lowery said the majority of the enemy pilots he saw shot down during his tour were young North Koreans or Chinese, explaining why in most cases when F-86s pounced MiGs, the victims flew straight and level, and they were knocked from the sky:

"What the Russians would do is bring them over on training flights at 51,000 feet, above the altitudes we'd be able to reach, and they'd fly a box pattern - - south of Antung, China, right at the mouth of the Yalu River where it empties into the Yellow Sea; then they'd come down almost to Pyongyang; then they would go eastbound to a certain point, then they'd go back to China. We'd try to catch them when they descended for landing into China.”

Howard Whitely, 98th BW, radioman,  Kadena AB, Okinawa, Japan

“The mission was planned in order to bomb the rail bridges at Kwaksan, North Korea on June 1, 1951.  Things went wrong on that bright sunny morning.  There was a malfunction on our first bomb run.  We had to go around and were on our second run when the F-86s left us.  To the best of my knowledge there was no engagement between F-86s and MiG-15s that morning.  I was sitting in the tunnel watching the MiG formations out of the blister (plexiglass).  They looked ghostly white against a blue sky.  I watched the first MiG strike, then scampered down to my radio position, grabbed my flak suit and helmet and hunkered on the floor.

“Captain Cook had already made the decision to close the bomb bay doors and make a run for it.  We were at the mercy of thirty MiGs.  All I could do was listen on the intercom to the gunners' calls and empty shells falling into the turret from our four 50 caliber machine guns above my head.  The tail guns were knocked out on the first pass.  It seemed like this battle would never end.  Finally, it was over and the tail gunner position had taken a direct shell hit.  Thankfully the gunner was not wounded.

“The A/C, Aircraft Commander told me to get off an S.O.S.  ‘We're hit in the wing tank, on fire.  Do not know the extent of damage.  Will try to make South Korea.’  We were sprinkled with flak somewhere along the route, but no major damage.  We had taken three shell hits: in the tail, in the fuselage behind the left gunner (hence the fire in the radar compartment) and in the wing between the Number 1 and Number 2 engines.

“God bless the Marine Corps!  They came up in a plane and looked us over.  They said the fire was out and we looked fine, except our bomb bay doors were hanging open.  We got to an airfield and told the tower we'd like to land except that we might bum on the way in.  The crew was given a choice again of bailing out or riding the plane down.  One of the crew said, ‘Hell, we've come this far.  We've got faith.  Let's go in.’  We made a normal landing. 

“Only one of the four B-29 bombers was lost.  I don't know why we didn't blow up.  Three MiG shells had hit us. You could look in the hole in the wing and could see gasoline. You could reach right in and grab a handful. But if one is really trying there are times when there is always a way out of these types of situations.

“We dropped our bombs on Sariwon probably at the lowest altitude we had ever dropped.  A 1000 pound bomb stayed on the front bomb bay shackle.  I told the A/C.  The bombardier tried to salvo.  It was a no go.  The A/C said to close the bomb bay doors and take the bomb with us.  About 10 minutes later there was a loud boom.  Sunlight hit me in the face through the bulkhead doors.  For an instant, I thought the bomb had exploded.  The bomb had fallen free and buckled the doors so badly they wouldn't close.  Gunners said they saw it explode on a mountain top below.

“All four B-29s in our group were damaged.  One went down, one went back to Yokota, one went to Kimpo or Taegu and we landed at Pusan.  The A/C told us to get out fast after landing as there was concern a live shell might still be in the plane.  No nose wheel exit for me as I went out the front bomb bay and ran.  No shell was found.”

1st Lieutenant Charles "Chick" Cleveland, 334th FIS, Kimpo AFB, Seoul, ROK

Lt. "Chick" Cleveland, while in the Korean War, earned five confirmed MiG-15 kills, one probable and four damaged. Warren Test wrote about him in the book, Once a Fighter Pilot: The Story of Korean War Ace Lt. Gen. Charles G. "Chick" Cleveland. Test provided this quote from Cleveland:

“We set up at 35,000 or so, and there were high clouds around, it was kind of hazy, and the sun was off to our left. Of course the wingman's duty is to check six. You're defense. Your leader's supposed to be offense. I kept looking around and saying to myself, there's no MiGs down here at the Chongchon, and I look back and there's a MiG-15 in a 90-degree bank pulling into the firing position, and too close for comfort.

"I called, 'Red Lead we've got MiGs on our tail. Break left.' I was on the right wing. We broke hard left, and the MiG was just a second late. He started shooting, and these red golf balls came whizzing past just under my tail pipe. I felt sure I was going to be hit.

“(The F-86As had) a very narrow stall margin between the time you first felt the buffet (caused by the red golf balls) until the aircraft stalled. You couldn't go very far into the buffet. It just snapped out (stalled) and went into a spin right there in the middle of combat.

"I was embarrassed. I was furious. I was saying to myself, 'if you don't get out of this spin, you will be a prisoner of war, and you never even fired your guns in anger.' I was able to get my thought processes together and went through the spin recovery procedure, which is first controls with the spin, and then stick full forward, rudders neutral, throttle at idle, then full rudder against the spin and pray.

"Sure enough I pulled out of the spin and put the throttle back up. I thought, 'I'm going home with my tail between my legs.' As I started to gain speed and climb, I didn't expect to see another airplane in the sky, but as I looked further out I saw my lead. He had done exactly the same thing. We could see the humor in the situation when we got home.

"The joke at the bar that night was that 'all the Chinese pilots are shaking their heads and saying, those crazy American pilots, they very disciplined.’ We didn't know it at the time, but the great majority of MiG pilots were Russians."

Lt. John L. Baker, B-29 navigator, 98th BW, Yokota AB, Japan

“In navigation school they always emphasized that the navigator's job is not complete until the wheels touch the runway.  I endorse that edict wholeheartedly …  The navigator's position in the 29 is adjacent to the forward gun turrets.  There are four 50 caliber machine guns in the upper turret and two more in the lower.  All are remotely operated.

“The B-29 carried an ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) operator.  These men flew three times as often as the other crewmen.  I think men with their skill were in short supply.  Their electronic equipment could be turned on to confuse the enemy radars and the proximity fuses on the anti-aircraft shells so they would explode at lower altitudes.  I can remember Don Dressler's (the bombardier in the nose) voice of alarm as he observed the rising altitude of the bursting AAA shells when the ECM Operator had to replace a fuse in one of the systems.  His panic would change to one of relief as the system resumed operation.  It was said that an ECM Operator's most critical skill was how fast he could find and replace a blown fuse. They always carried a bag of spares. Our plane, 61872, didn't have a skin puncture from AAA fire in the six months of our tour from June 1952 to January 1953.  Thank you, ECM!

“We flew three types of missions: strategic bombing of specific targets, front line support of ground troops, and propaganda leaflet drops.  The ground support drops were controlled by ground observers and ground radar that directed us by radio to a specific location and heading and then gave us the command to drop a specified number of bombs--usually, three to five.  We would then circle back around and repeat the maneuver until our bomb load was gone … If I remember correctly, our bomb loads were typically thirty-eight 500-pound bombs.

“For crew safety, we had to make sure all of our bombs were gone before landing, and on one flight we had a 500-pound bomb hang up.  Don Dressler, the bombardier, asked our radio operator to go out onto the walkway to the bomb bay and trip the shackle holding the bomb. As it happened, I needed a time hack from Joe Kuchinsky, the radio man, which meant that Don would have to release the bomb.  So Don had to squeeze by the gun turret and crawl into the bomb bay himself.  When he was able to release the bomb over the sea, we all breathed a sigh of relief.”


"No Red combat aircraft flew over the battlefield of the 38th parallel during the three years of war."

Colonel (Ret.) Walter J. Boyne

"The biggest misconception is that the Air Force reigned supreme throughout. This is most obvious in the mythology of the 10:1 victory total. What mattered is that because of the guys in the Sabres, the enemy air force never appeared over the battlefield, because if it had, the United Nations forces would have been defeated. That was the victory the Air Force obtained, and it doesn’t need any propaganda to make that claim."

Diane Tedechi, Air and Space Magazine

 "B-29s flew on all but 21 days of the 37-month war. In some 21,000 sorties they dropped 167,000 tons of bombs and claimed 16 MiGs and 17 other fighters shot down. At least 16 B-29s were shot down over North Korea, and as many as 48 were lost in crash landings or written off because of heavy damage after returning to base."

Walter J. Boyne, Air Force Magazine 

"B-29s flew 1,076 days during the 1,106-day air war in Korea ... Regardless of the many obstacles they faced, B-29 crews performed brilliantly, destroying industrial and military strategic targets in North Korea and supporting U.N. ground troops ... The men who flew and supported the B-29s in the Far East Command were an important part of the air war over Korea, but their contribution has seldom been recognized."

Lt. Col. George A. Larson, USAF  (Ret.)

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