The First Jet War

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In Korea, jets fought jets for the first time in history. The world’s first actual jet encounter took place near the Yalu River on November 8, 1950, when MiG-15s, the best and newest Soviet frontline fighters, attacked a formation of American B-29s escorted by F-80 jets. Lieutenant Russell Brown brought down the first Communist jet to be lost over Korea. “As Communist troops swept across the Yalu … and sliced through overextended and overconfident U.N. ground forces,” Dennis E. Showalter writes here, “the MiG-15 seemed poised to reverse the course of the air war.” It never did, largely because it soon came up against a fighter that was its equal, the F-86 Sabrejet. For the next two and a half years, the planes would duel over the area of North Korea south of the Yalu and bordering the Yellow Sea that U.N. pilots nicknamed “MiG Alley.”

The first MiG-15 pilots were mainly Soviets and Poles. Chinese pilots did not show up until the spring of 1951, and there were never many North Koreans. (We sometimes forget how genuinely international the Korean War was.) “Incidents” may have occurred during the Cold War, but this was the only instance in those four decades and more when Americans and Russians traded shots in anger over a prolonged period. According to a CIA report in the summer of 1952, “a de facto air war exists over North Korea between the UN and the USSR.” Apparently, as many as seventy-two thousand Soviet air personnel rotated in and out of Chinese airfields, those frustratingly “privileged sanctuaries” that U.N. airmen were forbidden to attack. (There were times when U.N. pilots violated this order.) The original Soviet airmen belonged to elite units that had been stationed around Moscow. Their initial mission was to intercept and destroy the B-29 bombers, propeller-driven behemoths from World War II, that were destroying what little transportation and manufacturing infrastructure North Korea possessed, much of it in MiG Alley. But the Soviet pilots, many of whom were Eastern Front veterans, regarded Korea as an opportunity for a refresher course in aerial combat; younger men made it their finishing school. Although their MiG-15s bore the red wing stars of the Soviet air force, the pilots otherwise took elaborate precautions to conceal their identities. They dressed in Chinese uniforms, refrained as much as possible from speaking Russian in radio transmissions, and never (except through the rare mistake) flew over U.N.-held territory or over the sea. It is recorded that one MiG-15 pilot, downed behind U.N. lines, shot himself rather than be captured and interrogated. Another, who crashed in the sea and managed to swim free of his sinking aircraft, was strafed and killed by fellow pilots as a U.N. patrol boat rushed to rescue him. Stalin did not want to present the West with a pretext for starting World War III. American leaders were just as wary. Even after he learned of the Soviet involvement, President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept quiet, out of fear that conservatives in Congress might push for retaliation if they got wind of it.

Though Stalin came to believe that his unleashing of the North Koreans had been a mistake, the old man still took consolation in contemplating the huge U.N. air losses, which his lieutenants led him to believe were mostly the handiwork of his MiG-15s. The losses, as Showalter acknowledges here, were indeed great; ground fire, not the dogfights of MiG Alley, accounted for most of them. As for air battles with MiG-15s, Sabrejets actually earned a respectable advantage in kill ratio—and did even better at the end of the war, as Chinese and North Korean pilots took over from the Soviets.

Korea may have been the first jet war, but piston-driven propeller planes still had their pride of place, including some famous names out of World War II, such as YAKs, Sturmoviks, Mustangs, Corsairs, B-26 Invaders, and B-29 Superfortresses. In the last year of the Pacific War, the B-29 had ranged over the Japanese Home Islands, practically unopposed by enemy fighters. That was not the case in the Korean War when these ponderous targets were jumped by MiG-15s; they were forced to begin flying only at night. That did not prevent the B-29s from turning much of North Korea into a vast crater field. They firebombed cities like Pyongyang with napalm, something that gave Prime Minister Winston Churchill pause. “I do not like this napalm bombing at all,” he told an acquaintance, adding, “We should make a very great mistake to commit ourselves to approval of a very cruel form of warfare…. I will take no responsibility for it.” As Stanley Sandler points out in his excellent summation, The Korean War, “In light of the death tolls of the Tokyo fire raids, the two nuclear bombings, and of similar raids on Pyongyang and Sinuiju, the B-29 can be said to have killed more civilians than any other aircraft in history.”

American bombs may have come close to rending the social fabric of North Korea, but they did not keep supplies from the front or otherwise help to end the war. By the time a truce was signed in July 1953, the Communist armies were better fed than they had ever been and were able to lay down mass barrages that even a World War I artilleryman would not have disparaged.

In Korea, the past may have been recaptured on the ground. But in the sky, the future took shape.

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On the afternoon of June 27, 1950, eight Soviet-built, piston-engined IL-10 attack planes of the North Korean Air Force were attacked over Kimpo Airfield by four American jet fighters, F-80 Shooting Stars. Within minutes, four of the North Korean planes were down. Lieutenants R. E. Wayne—who shot down two planes—and R. E. Dewald and Captain Raymond Schillereff had scored the first jet kills of the U.S. Air Force. But this historical milestone was not the first American victory of the air war. That same morning, five North Korean fighters had tangled with an equal number of U.S. planes and lost three of their number to an aircraft that was little more than a footnote in aviation history. The F-82 Twin Mustang, essentially two P-51 fuselages linked by a stub wing and a tail section, had been cobbled together in the aftermath of post-1945 budget cuts as an interim night fighter and long-range escort.

These two very different encounters reflected the ambiguous nature of the air war over Korea. Jet aircraft had made their first appearances during the final stages of World War II. Nazi Germany’s Messerschmitt 262 jet fighter was not the potential war winner of legend. Nevertheless, it shocked the U.S. Eighth Air Force even in the small numbers the Luftwaffe finally deployed. The Allies were slow to react. Britain managed to send a single squadron of Gloster Meteors, roughly similar to the Me 262, into combat before V-E Day, but the German jet’s only losses came when two of them collided while returning to base. The United States began designing and ordering jets during the war, but none came into service until after 1945. The Soviet Union was even further behind. Both superpowers depended heavily on German jet technology once it became available.

Were jets the wave of air power’s future? In principle, it seemed so—until the shooting started over Korea. On the one hand, jet fighters, by now entering a second design generation represented by the swept-wing MiG-15s and F-86 Sabres, dominated the peninsula’s skies whenever they were present. But at the same time, piston-engined veterans of World War II like the Mustang, the F4U Corsair, the B-26 light bomber, and the B-29 Superfortress played vital roles in the air campaign from the Pusan Perimeter to the armistice at Panmunjom. Nor were these old warhorses kept in service merely for want of more modern alternatives. The U.S. Navy’s propeller-driven AD Skyraider saw its first combat in Korea. Fifteen years later, it was to play a major role in Vietnam.

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