USAF Reconnaissance during the Korean War I

The date was June 25, 1950. The American people were shocked to learn that the North Korean army had massed its forces and rolled across the 38th parallel, which since World War II had served as the artificially devised demarcation line, into South Korea. President Harry Truman responded forthrightly to the surprise assault by having our ambassador to the United Nations (U. N.) urge the Security Council to respond to this unprovoked aggression. With the council’s unanimous approval, the United Nations engaged in a police action to stop the belligerent force. Fortunately, the USSR representative was absent from the Security Council and unable to stop the resolution; unfortunately, the United States was ill-prepared for war.

In Japan, our armed forces were engaged in occupation of the Japanese mainland after Japan’s formal surrender in September 1945. Essentially, no preparation had been made for war. The overall commander of our forces, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who was primarily engaged in the formidable task of transforming the Empire of Japan into a democratic society, was quickly named commander of the U. N. forces. Ground troops were immediately committed to the Korean peninsula to bolster the rapidly retreating South Korean and U. S. military forces. The situation was critical, and the North Koreans rapidly drove back the South Korean army and the U. S. Army forces (deployed from Japan) to the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, which became known as the Pusan perimeter.

U. S. Air Force airlift, well experienced after the massive effort to relieve besieged Berlin, swung into action and delivered the most urgent supplies from the United States. A sealift effort followed as well. Those early forces were desperately buying time, maintaining a foothold in Korea, until the major deployment of forces and logistics came on-line.

Critical to our military response was information regarding the disposition of the attacking forces, their major lines of attack, the size of their forces, and their major military equipment, armor, artillery, and supply lines. The North Korean attack moved so swiftly that response plans were overtaken by events. Intelligence information was desperately needed, so USAF reconnaissance aircraft were quickly deployed from central Japan to Itazuke Air Base (AB) on Kyushu Island, Japan, the base closest to Korea.

The only tactical reconnaissance unit based in Japan was the 8th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (TRS) equipped with twenty-five RF-80 single engine jet aircraft. The RF-80, derived from the F-80 (the first truly operational jet aircraft of the USAF), was well-equipped with cameras adequate to the task. The first combat mission of the Korean War fell to Lt. Bryce Poe II, who flew from Itazuke AB across the straits to South Korea. Lieutenant Poe was no novice to reconnaissance, having flown his RF-80 in Top Secret missions over the Vladivostok area of the Soviet Union. Immediately, the RF-80s began to photograph every airfield in North Korea.

The demand for accurate intelligence information was a top priority. In the fast-moving and fluid operations, reconnaissance included visual as well as photographic collection. Rapid film processing and immediate photo interpretation were critical, but the sheer amount of work quickly exceeded the capabilities of the 548th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron. Joint doctrine established that the Army would provide their own photo interpreters to provide intelligence analysis specific to Army needs within a joint organization. However, the army had no available photo interpreters, and the joint organization did not exist. Therefore, individuals throughout every area of operations, Army and Air Force, handled the initial operations in an ad hoc, emergency manner, which required extraordinary initiative.

It is difficult today to imagine the confusion, and yet determination and commitment of our armed forces. The understrength, ill-equipped, and insufficiently trained Army troops were determined to hold the perimeter against overwhelming odds and not be driven into the Sea of Japan. The USAF was involved with close air support and interdiction missions attempting to stem the flow of North Korean men and equipment that were besieging the perimeter. A major problem was the short range of the F-80 and RF-80 aircraft that had to operate from Japan because no suitable bases were available within the perimeter.

In the demobilization subsequent to World War II, the USAF had declined to forty-eight groups by the time the Korean War broke out. Its personnel strength of 411,277 officers and men represented less than 18 percent of its wartime strength. Later, the USAF chief of staff, Gen. Hoyt S. Vandenberg called it a shoestring Air Force. Requests for more F-80Cs, F-82s, B-26s, B-29s, C-54s, F-51s, C-47s, RF-51s, and RF-80s could be met only piecemeal.

One can only marvel at the ability of U. S. forces to hold the perimeter, while forces were being moved from the United States by ship and air to provide more muscle to our limited capabilities. Meanwhile, General MacArthur developed an audacious plan involving a strategic envelopment of the North Koreans that, although exceedingly risky, proved to be masterful in planning and execution. The very high tides at Inchon, on the west coast of Korea, a few miles from Seoul, made the planned amphibious operation problematic. RF-80 aircraft took dicing shots (low-level photo missions with cameras aimed obliquely through the nose of the aircraft) that enabled our skilled photo interpreters to determine accurately the height of the sea wall and the exact times and extent of the tides. The amphibious operation proved a stunning success. U. S. forces broke out of the Pusan perimeter, and the combined penetration and successful envelopment from the Inchon beachhead broke the North Korean attack, allowing U. N. forces to push repel enemy, northward up the peninsula.

USAF reconnaissance assets now included the Strategic Air Command (SAC) reconnaissance bombers, RB-29s, relegated to medium status with the now-operational B-36 heavy bomber. Navy reconnaissance jet aircraft operated from aircraft carriers, and Marine Corps reconnaissance aircraft were later based on land. The traditional reconnaissance effort was augmented by other intelligence-gathering efforts from slower flying C-47s and C-46s, which were sometimes operated openly by the USAF and at other times, by clandestine organizations. Prisoner interrogation provided another form of collecting useful information, fitting into the effort to produce an accurate picture of the enemy’s capabilities. Nevertheless, the bulk of all intelligence information was collected, produced, and interpreted by the USAF.

Principal USAF reconnaissance assets included the RB-29, RB-45, RF-80, RF-51, and RB-26. With the exception of the RF-80 and RB-45, these aircraft had major roles in World War II. Providing airfields suited for these jet aircraft posed a major problem that proved so serious that one F-80 fighter squadron converted to F-51 Mustangs simply to provide close air support flying from the short, dirt runways available in Korea. The construction of adequate runways and support facilities was a major activity.

RB-29s provided photoreconnaissance that allowed the B-29s to bomb strategic targets in North Korea. In a short time, it was determined that strategic bombing was no longer needed because no more targets remained. This was before dams and hydroelectric generating plants became targets later during the war. After September 26, 1950, all B-29 bombing missions were directed against tactical targets.

The demobilization of the armed forces in the five years after World War II had significantly reduced our capabilities to effectively wage war. New aircraft were entering production-the F-86, F-84, RF-84F, B-47, and RB-47-but we began fighting the war with World War II equipment. Already, we had forgotten the lessons learned in that war. All the tactical training and coordinated efforts relating to tactical air forces in the support of army units had to be relearned. Individual units had established standards of proficiency, but the bare-bones budget did not allow for joint exercises. The call-up of reserves with World War II experience lessened the learning curve, but time for training was not available; experience in combat and necessity accelerated coordination of the required team effort.

Another major factor limited our fighting capabilities in Korea. The invasion of South Korea seemed to presage an all-out communist effort in Europe. Consequently, the Joint Chiefs of Staff sought to limit the movement of men and equipment to fight in Korea. All subsequent military events in Korea needed to be viewed through the prism that Korea was considered as likely to be only the first phase of a major conflict with communist forces worldwide.

Deployment of tactical reconnaissance units to Korea had the 8th TRS (RF-80s) arriving at Taegu, South Korea, on October 2, 1950, and the 162d TRS (RB-26s) arriving from Langley AFB on October 8, with both supported by the 363d Reconnaissance Technical Squadron, which had also urgently deployed from Langley. These units formed the 543d Tactical Support Group. In November 1950, the 45th TRS, recently activated with RF-51 Mustangs, joined the 543d Group.

Besides the critical shortage of reconnaissance aircraft, the shortage of experienced intelligence experts, that is, photo interpreters, posed a daunting task. Since no reserve photo interpreter organizations had been created after World War II, training new photo interpreters was the only way to reduce the workload.

General Vandenberg told Lt. Gen. George Stratemeyer, commander of Far East Air Forces (FEAF), that to be effective, tactical operations required the interdiction of targets that were the sources for supplies, ammunition, and troops. B-29s of the 22d and 92d Bombardment Groups deployed to Japan for operations against North Korea, augmenting three other groups already available. Industrial centers of Wonsan, Pyongyang, Hungnam, Ch’ongjin, and Rashin were identified as targets. Their selection was based on their falling into one or more of the following categories: port facility, railroad head, petroleum production and storage site, aircraft factory, armament manufacturing, chemical and light-metal plant, and hydroelectric facility.

Three of the bombardment groups were dedicated to strategic targets; the other two were used for interdiction. The FEAF Target Section had not prepared target folders for North Korea prior to the Korean War. Old target folders and photography were discovered at Guam, and these materials, combined with the efforts of the RB-29s of the 31st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron, produced the radarscope photography to meet the demand. The 548th Reconnaissance Technical Squadron handled the photofinishing and photo interpretation. Of forty-six strategic bombing attacks, bomber crews lacked adequate photography and radarscope intelligence for only one target.

After the bombing of the Fusen hydroelectric plant on September 26, 1950, the Joint Chiefs of Staff informed General MacArthur that all the strategic targets had been eliminated and that all further medium bomber missions would be for interdiction supporting his tactical operations in the field.

On October 18, 1950, the 31st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron reported that some seventy-five fighters were seen at Antung, the Manchurian air base immediately across the Yalu River, which formed the border between China and Korea. An RF-80 pilot spotted fifteen propeller-driven Yak aircraft at Sinuiju, in North Korea, and these were quickly attacked by F-80 fighter-bombers which strafed the field and destroyed or damaged seven of the aircraft. One of the F-80s was shot down by gunfire from across the Yalu. Before another attack by F-80s, the surviving Yaks had flown north. At this time, six Russian-made MiG-15s flew into Korea, the first sighting of these jets. Shortly thereafter, U. S. Army and Republic of Korea units approached the Yalu.

As the result of a paper transaction, the 31st Squadron returned to the United States and the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron replaced it on November 16, 1950. According to historical analysis, neither air nor ground reconnaissance hinted at the major deployment of Chinese troops immediately north of the Yalu as they grouped for an assault on U. N. forces. Much of this oversight is explained by the severe limitations placed on photoreconnaissance after the attack by two MiG-15s on an RB-29 of the 31st Strategic Reconnaissance Squadron near Sinuiju on November 9, 1950. The aircraft crash-landed at Johnson AB, Japan, killing five crewmembers. After this incident, RB-29s were ordered not to approach the Yalu, leaving those missions to the RF-80s flown by the 8th TRS, which was operating from Taegu, well down the peninsula. Gen. George C. Kenney had speculated that the first sign of Chinese communist entry into the Korean War would be observed through air operations. The introduction of the MiG-15s proved his prescience.

As General MacArthur’s forces approached the Yalu, the prevailing intelligence assumptions were that the deployment of Chinese forces on the border were to ensure no incursions into Manchuria. However, on November 26, Chinese forces aggressively attacked in an effort to envelop and destroy the U. N. forces.

Various explanations have been given for this intelligence failure. RB-29 reconnaissance flights had been prohibited from approaching the Yalu since November 9, leaving photo coverage to the 8th and 12th TRSs. Joint doctrine called for three daytime reconnaissance squadrons: two would provide visual reconnaissance, and one, photography in advance of an army. Although demands from the Army and Air Force were extensive, the 8th TRS was not overtaxed, as neither the Army nor the Air Force was capable of interpreting all photography speedily because of the shortage of qualified photo interpreters. In fact, the Air Force provided photo interpretation for the Army, which was actually an Army responsibility. The 8th TRS photography focused on the Yalu River crossings, with the 12th TRS flying a few night reconnaissance missions. Fog greatly hindered night photography.

Photo interpreters analyzing reconnaissance missions were frustrated over a reported intelligence failure. They had reported on masses of Chinese troops crossing the Yalu River in the vicinity of Sinuiju, and they noted major stockpiles of equipment concentrated there. Although they had submitted these findings as special intelligence reports, to their chagrin, no bombing raids were scheduled.

On December 15, the first F-86s arrived in Korea, forming the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing stationed at Kimpo AB (K-14) outside Seoul. The F-86s escorted RF-80s that flew photo missions in the Sinuiju, Sinanju, and Antung areas of operations. Throughout December, reconnaissance confirmed the extension and improvement of runways at Antung in North Korea. At Dairen AB, the Soviets had some 400 to 500 aircraft. The RF-80, limited to Mach 0.8-considerably slower than the speed attainable by the MiG-15s-had to be escorted by F-86s on missions along the Yalu in the area now being called MiG Alley. On December 4, MiGs boxed in an RF-80 and its F-80 escort and damaged both aircraft with 23-mm cannon fire; both planes were fortunate to return to base.

As a result of MiG attacks on RB-29s, the 91st Squadron took control of two RB-45 jet reconnaissance aircraft on January 31, 1951. They had been assigned to Reconnaissance Detachment A of the 84th Bombardment Squadron. Although at first successful in outrunning the MiGs, they too had difficulties. In one attack on April 9, an RB-45 sustained a number of hits, but it successfully returned to base. On June 1, all unescorted Bomber Command aircraft were prohibited from operating in the vicinity of the Yalu and MiG Alley. Then in October, all RB-29s were prohibited from operating in northwest Korea, and the 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing (TRW) assumed that photoreconnaissance responsibility. All RB-45 daylight operations ceased after another close call from MiGs on November 9.

During the early part of the Korean War, just two squadrons were performing the tactical missions of visual reconnaissance and photoreconnaissance: the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance, Photo-Jet; and the 12th TRS, Night-Photo, operating from Taegu. By December 1950, the 45th TRS (flying RF-51 Mustangs) joined the reconnaissance effort.

As the demand for reconnaissance grew, it became apparent that the effort had to be coordinated. Some of the supporting units were in Japan. Col. Karl L. “Pop” Polifka, a noted reconnaissance expert from World War II, was brought in to form the newly activated 67th TRW on February 25, 1951. The 8th TRS was redesignated the 15th TRS, while the 12th TRS continued on, as did the 45th TRS. The support elements making up the wing were brought in from Japan.

The 15th TRS was responsible for covering all airfields and lines of communication in the northern part of North Korea, responding to tasking by the Army as well as the USAF. The 12th TRS had the same responsibility, but it was limited to night operations. The 45th TRS provided reconnaissance forward of the Army’s front lines. Their job was to learn the features and terrain in front of Army units and, from that familiarity, identify changes signifying enemy movement and emplacements.

In March 1951, Fifth Air Force devised a target location system implemented by the 45th TRS which operated at first light every morning. Night operations would suggest possible locations of enemy trucks and troops that would be trying to conceal themselves as dawn broke. The RF-51s would then be on hand to direct fighter-bomber attacks. These were called Circle 10 missions because the Mustangs flew in a circle roughly ten miles in diameter around the suspected area. When the Mustangs identified the targets, they called in F-80 and F-84 attacks.

By mid-April, RF-51s flew in pairs with one providing top cover to clear the lower-flying aircraft and provide early warning on any enemy antiaircraft fire. This useful tactic was later employed by the 15th TRS and was continued by the 45th TRS when they relinquished their Mustangs for RF-80s.

Throughout February, March, and April, reconnaissance confirmed that North Korean airfields had been readied for aircraft arriving from Manchuria. Photo interpreters discovered that the North Koreans were destroying buildings on either side of a paved road running through Pyongyang and turning it into a 7,000-foot runway. The RF-80s also identified a rapid effort to improve the airfield at Sinuiju. Attacks soon left the runways cratered.

On July 1, Colonel Polifka was killed while flying a combat mission. In his short time as wing commander, he had coordinated the various tactical reconnaissance elements, enhancing their ability to respond rapidly to the reconnaissance requirements called for by the USAF and U. S. Army. In late August, the 67th TRW was able to deploy to Kimpo AB from Taegu, from southern to central Korea, which reduced the time and distance it needed to operate in the northern reaches of the peninsula, up to the Yalu. This reduction was of particular significance for the jet aircraft.

One squadron, the 15th TRS flying the RF-80, was now conducting all the daylight photography in North Korea above the battle line. The missions in MiG Alley to determine the status of airfields were increasingly hazardous despite escorts of sometimes as many as sixteen F-86s. The faster F-86s would provide top cover by weaving back and forth over the slower RF-80s, but MiG-15s diving from higher altitude often penetrated the protective screen of F-86s and were able to fire upon the RF-80s. Additionally, FEAF was tasking the 15th TRS with Top Secret missions which required overflights of Manchuria and mainland China across the Yellow Sea.

By June 1951, the communists realized the futility of operating aircraft from their airfields in North Korea and proceeded to build additional airstrips near Antung, just north of the Yalu River. Soon, some 300 MiG fighters were operating from these bases. Intelligence, based on photography, determined that the MiG-15 buildup of 445 aircraft in June 1951 had increased to 525 by September. For comparison, only 89 F-86s were based in Korea at the same time. By December, however, 127 F-86s were in Korea, the 51st Fighter Wing now having joined the 4th Fighter Wing in combat.

In July 1951, fighter-bombers, though escorted by F-86s, were attacked by MiGs. They escaped, but that same month one RF-80 was badly damaged during an attack. Photo missions were rescheduled time and again to secure coverage in MiG Alley. In November, pilots of the 15th TRS were attacked eleven times by MiGs, all, while being escorted by F-86s. In September, an RF-80 pilot spotted construction of a new airfield at Samcham, about thirty miles northeast of the Sinanju airfield, and the new airfield was immediately targeted for attack by B-29s. RF-80 pilots of the 15th TRS were taking prestrike photos and following up with poststrike photography immediately after bombing missions. The processed film was delivered immediately, with mission results, to allow for a subsequent air strike the same day, if one were needed.

It is difficult today to appreciate the conditions that reconnaissance pilots were subjected to when flying the RF-80. The engine thrust was just over a paltry 3,800 pounds. Additional thrust was obtained during takeoff by spraying a water-alcohol mixture over the centrifugal flow engine, but this lasted for only a few seconds. Navigation was strictly nap-of-the-earth piloting, with pilots using map of various scales to locate assigned targets; the scales included 1:500,000, 1:250,000, and 1:62,500. A radio compass was useful for navigation over South Korea and Japan. Some of the RF-80s had manual canopies; others had no ejection seats. At times, the sliding canopies had to be closed by the crew chief. Cabin pressurization was notoriously poor with these older aircraft, and the cabin pressure at times gave a higher reading than the altimeter. There were no viewfinders to identify targets; pilots aligned themselves directly over the target by banking the aircraft, looking down, and maneuvering the aircraft visually for alignment.

Pilots used forecast winds at altitude to determine ground speeds and to establish the intervalometer settings for the camera to provide adequate overlap of exposures. All this required excellent pilotage to reach the target and good aircraft handling. The requester determined the scale of photography. This required that the necessary focal length of the camera be selected as well as the altitude flown. Usually another pilot, in a companion RF-80 or F-80, would fly above and slightly behind to spot enemy aircraft and antiaircraft artillery fire.

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