USAF Korean Air War 1952-53

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Second Korean Winter: November 28, 1951-April 30, 1952

USAF officials recognized the need for more F-86s to counter the Chinese Air Force in Korea. The 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing at Suwon AB, 15 miles south of Seoul, consequently received F-86s from the United States to replace its F-80s. On December 1, 1951, the wing flew its first combat missions in the new Sabres. Members of the 51st and 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wings shattered the Communists’ air offensive, downing 26 MiGs in two weeks, while losing only six F-86s. The Sabres achieved in the air results that had eluded the B-29s when they bombed the enemy airfields near Pyongyang. For the rest of the winter, the MiG pilots generally avoided aerial combat; nevertheless, Fifth Air Force pilots between January and April 1952 destroyed 127 Communist aircraft while losing only nine in aerial combat.

In spite of increasing vulnerability to flak damage, Fifth Air Force continued its raids against railways. In January 1952 FEAF Bomber Command’s B-29s joined this interdiction campaign. Although the Communists managed to build up supply dumps in forward areas, the UN air forces damaged the railways enough to prevent the enemy from supporting a sustained major offensive. The interdiction missions also forced the North Koreans and Chinese to divert materiel and troops from the front lines to protect and repair the railways. As the ground began to thaw, between March 3 and 25, the Fifth Air Force bombed key railways, but with limited success. For example, on the 25th fighter-bombers attacked the railway between Chongju, on the west coast 60 miles northeast of Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and Sinanju, 20 miles farther southeast. This strike closed the railway line for only five days before the Communists repaired it. The B-29s were somewhat more successful during the last week in March, knocking out bridges at Pyongyang and Sinanju. Fifth Air Force continued the interdiction campaign through April while looking for more effective means to block North Korean transport systems.

In the winter of 1951-1952, with the establishment of static battle lines, the need for close air support declined drastically. To use the potential firepower of the fighter-bombers, in January 1952 the UN commander alternated aerial bombardment of enemy positions on one day with artillery attacks of the same positions the next day. The Chinese and North Korean troops merely dug deeper trenches and tunnels that were generally invulnerable to either air or artillery strikes. After a month the UN Commander, General Ridgway, ordered the strikes stopped. With peace talks at Panmunjom stalemated and ground battle lines static, on April 30 UN air commanders prepared a new strategy of military pressure against the enemy by attacking targets previously exempted or underexploited.

Korea, Summer-Fall 1952: May 1–November 30, 1952

The new UN strategy sought to increase military pressure on North Korea and thus force the Communist negotiators to temper their demands. In May 1952 the Fifth Air Force shifted from interdiction missions against transportation networks to attacks on North Korean supply depots and industrial targets. On May 8 UN fighter-bombers blasted a supply depot and a week later destroyed a vehicle-repair factory at Tang-dong, a few miles north of Pyongyang. The Fifth Air Force, under a new Commander, Maj. Gen. Glenn O. Barcus, also destroyed munitions factories and a steel-fabricating plant during May and June. Meanwhile, Gen. Mark W. Clark took over the UNC. Beginning on June 23, U. S. Navy and Fifth Air Force units made coordinated attacks on the electric power complex at Sui-ho Dam, on the Yalu River near Sinuiju, followed by strikes against the Chosin, Fusen, and Kyosen power plants, all located midway between the Sea of Japan and the Manchurian border in northeastern Korea.

The aerial reconnaissance function, always important in target selection, became indispensable to the strategy of increased aerial bombardment, since target planners sought the most lucrative targets. One inviting target was the capital city of Pyongyang. It remained unscathed until July 11 when aircraft of the U. S. Seventh Fleet, 1st Marine Air Wing, Fifth Air Force, British Navy, and ROK Air Force struck military targets there. That night, after daylong attacks, FEAF Bomber Command sent a flight of B-29s to bomb eight targets. Post-strike assessments of Pyongyang showed considerable damage inflicted to command posts, supply dumps, factories, barracks, antiaircraft gun sites, and railroad facilities. The North Koreans subsequently upgraded their antiaircraft defenses, forcing UN fighter-bombers and light bombers (B-26s) to sacrifice accuracy and bomb from higher altitudes. Allied air forces returned to Pyongyang again on August 29 and 30, destroying most of their assigned targets. In September, Fifth Air Force sent its aircraft against troop concentrations and barracks in northwest Korea while Bomber Command bombed similar targets near Hamhung in northeast Korea.

Along the front lines, throughout the summer and fall of 1952, FEAF joined the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps to provide between 2,000 and 4,000 close air support sorties each month. For example, FEAF Bomber Command not only flew nighttime interdiction missions but also gave radar-directed close air support (10,000 or more meters from friendly positions) at night to frontline troops under Communist attack. During the daytime, Mustang (F- 51) pilots flew preplanned and immediate close air support missions.

The 315th Air Division also supported the ground forces, flying supplies and personnel into Korea and returning wounded, reassigned, and furloughed personnel to Japan. C-124s, more efficient on the long haul, carried personnel and cargo. C-47s provided tactical airlift to airfields near the front lines, and C-119s handled bulky cargo and airborne and airdrop operations.

During the summer of 1952, the 4th and 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wings replaced many of their F-86Es with modified F-86Fs. The new Sabre aircraft had more powerful engines and improved leading wing-edges which allowed them to match the aerial combat performance of the MiG-15 jet fighters of the North Korean and Chinese air forces. Even though the Communists had built up their air order of battle, they still tended to restrict their flights to MiG Alley and often avoided aerial combat with the F-86 pilots. By August and September, however, MiG pilots showed more initiative, and aerial engagements occurred almost daily. Even though the Communist pilots improved their tactics and proficiency, U. S. pilots destroyed many more MiGs, achieving at the end of October a ratio of eight enemy losses to every U. S. loss.

The Communists, in spite of the pressure of the air campaign, remained stubborn in the truce talks. On October 8, 1952, the UN negotiators at Panmunjom recessed the talks because the Chinese would not agree to nonforced repatriation of prisoners of war. (Only those POWs who wanted repatriation would return to Communist control. Many enemy POWs preferred to remain in South Korea, but the Communist authorities insisted that these POWs also be returned.). As winter set in, UN forces in Korea remained mired in the stalemated conflict.

Third Korean Winter: December 1, 1952-April 30, 1953

The military stalemate continued throughout the winter of 1952-1953. Allied Sabre pilots, meantime, persisted in destroying MiGs at a decidedly favorable ratio. In December the Communists developed an ambush tactic against F-86 pilots patrolling along the Yalu River: MiG pilots would catch the UN aircraft as they ran short of fuel and headed south to return to base. During these engagements, some of the F-86 pilots exhausted their fuel and had to bail out over Cho-do, an island 60 miles southwest of Pyongyang. UN forces held the island and maintained an air rescue detachment there for such emergencies. To avoid combat while low on fuel, Sabre pilots began to fly home over the Yellow Sea. MiG pilots at this time generally sought the advantages of altitude, speed, position, and numbers before engaging in aerial combat. The UN pilots, on the other hand, relied on their skills to achieve aerial victories, even though they were outnumbered and flying aircraft that did not quite match the flight capabilities of the MiG-15s. One memorable battle occurred on February 18, 1953, near the Sui-ho Reservoir on the Yalu River, 110 miles north of Pyongyang; four F-86Fs attacked 48 MiGs, shot down two, and caused two others to crash while taking evasive action. All four U. S. aircraft returned safely to their base.

While the Fifth Air Force maintained air superiority over North Korea during daylight hours, FEAF Bomber Command on nighttime missions ran afoul of increasingly effective Communist interceptors. The aging B-29s relied on darkness and electronic jamming for protection from both interceptors and antiaircraft gunfire, but the Communists used spotter aircraft and searchlights to reveal bombers to enemy gun crews and fighter-interceptor pilots. As B-29 losses mounted in late 1952, Bomber Command compressed bomber formations to shorten the time over targets and to increase the effectiveness of electronic countermeasures. Fifth Air Force joined the Navy and Marine Corps to provide fighter escorts to intercept enemy aircraft before they could attack the B-29s. Bomber Command also restricted missions along the Yalu to cloudy, dark nights because on clear nights contrails gave away the bombers’ positions. FEAF lost no more B-29s after January 1953 although it continued its missions against industrial targets. On March 5 the B-29s penetrated deep into enemy territory to bomb a target at Chongjin in northeastern Korea, only 63 miles from the Soviet border. While Bomber Command struck industrial targets throughout North Korea during the winter of 1952-1953, Fifth Air Force cooperated with the U. S. Navy’s airmen in attacks on supplies, equipment, and troops near the front lines. In December 1952 the Eighth Army moved its bombline from 10,000 to 3,000 meters from the front lines, enabling Fifth Air Force and naval fighter-bombers to target areas closer to American positions. Beyond the front lines, Fifth Air Force focused on destroying railroads and bridges, allowing B-26s to bomb stalled vehicles. In January 1953 Fifth Air Force attempted to cut the five railroad bridges over the Chongchon Estuary near Sinanju, 40 miles north of Pyongyang. Expecting trains to back up in marshaling yards at Sinanju, Bomber Command sent B-29s at night to bomb them, but these operations hindered enemy transportation only briefly. As the ground thawed in the spring, however, the Communist forces had greater difficulty moving supplies and reinforcements in the face of the Fifth Air Force’s relentless attacks on transportation.

At the end of March 1953, the Chinese Communist government indicated its willingness to exchange injured and ill prisoners of war and to discuss terms for a cease-fire in Korea. On April 20, Communist and UN officials began an exchange of POWs, and six days later they resumed the sessions at Panmunjom.

Korea, Summer 1953: May 1-July 27, 1953

Although Communist leaders showed a desire to negotiate an armistice, they would not do so before trying to improve their military positions. During May 1953 Fifth Air Force reconnaissance revealed that the Chinese and North Koreans were regrouping their frontline forces. On the last day of the month, Lt. Gen. Samuel E. Anderson took command of the Fifth Air Force.

Communist forces directed a major assault on June 10 against the ROK’s II Corps near Kumsong, a small town in central Korea, 110 miles southeast of Pyongyang. With American aid, the South Koreans stopped the Communist drive by June 19 with little loss of territory. During the enemy offensive, UN pilots broke previous records in flying close air support sorties, with FEAF flying 7,032, the Marine Corps, 1,348, and other UN air forces, 537. Also during June FEAF devoted about one-half of its combat sorties to close air support. Communist troops attacked again in central Korea on July 13, forcing the ROK II Corps to retreat once more. But by the 20th Allied ground forces had stopped the foe’s advance only a few miles south of previous battle lines. During July, FEAF once again devoted more than 40 percent of its 12,000 combat sorties to close air support missions.

During the Communist offensives, the 315th Air Division responded to demands of Eighth Army, and between June 21 and 23 it airlifted an Army regiment (3,252 soldiers and 1,770 tons of cargo) from Japan to Korea. From June 28 through July 2, the airlifters flew almost 4,000 more troops and over 1,200 tons of cargo from Misawa and Tachikawa ABs in Japan to Pusan and Taegu airfields in Korea. These proved to be the last major airlift operations of the Korean conflict.

In aerial combat, meanwhile, Fifth Air Force interceptors set new records. Sabre pilots fought most aerial battles in May, June, and July 1953 at 20,000 to 40,000 feet in altitude, where the F-86F was most lethal, and during these three months they claimed 165 aerial victories against only three losses-the best quarterly victory-to-loss ratio of the war.

Fifth Air Force and FEAF Bomber Command also continued to punish the enemy through air interdiction, making attacks on the Sui-ho power complex and other industrial and military targets along the Yalu River. In addition, the Fifth Air Force in May attacked irrigation dams that had previously been excluded from the list of approved targets. On May 13 U. S. fighter-bombers broke the Toksan Dam about 20 miles north of Pyongyang, and on the 16th they bombed the Chasan Dam, a few miles to the east of Toksan Dam. The resulting floods extensively damaged rice fields, buildings, bridges, and roads. Most importantly, two main rail lines were disabled for several days. Between July 20 and 27 the UNC bombed North Korean airfields to prevent extensive aerial reinforcement before the armistice ending the Korean conflict became effective on July 27, 1953.

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