was one of the countries that the Soviet Union and the United States,
World War II allies, jointly occupied at the end of the war. A nation
that had been ravaged by decades of Japanese invasion and occupation,
Korea was divided in half along the 38th parallel (38º N latitude), with
the Soviet Union occupying the north and the United States, the south.
But as each country’s focus turned elsewhere, the cost of keeping troops
in a poor, remote country seemed pointless. In 1947 Soviet troops
withdrew, followed soon after by the American forces. The people of
Korea were left on their own. Governments were formed in each half
reflecting the country that had helped it rebuild--communist in the
north, nominally democratic in the south.
June 25, 1950, troops of the communist North Korea People’s Army (NKPA)
crossed the 38th parallel to reunite Korea’s halves into one communist
nation. The United Nations, without the Soviet delegate voting, passed a
resolution to send troops to restore the balance. Although
representatives of many nations were sent, the majority was American.
President Harry Truman termed the operation a "police action" in order
to avoid the constitutional requirements for declaring war (it was
retroactively declared the Korean War by Congress in 1986). U.S. troops
were immediately sent to Korea for what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff Omar Bradley was to describe as "the wrong war, in the wrong
place, at the wrong time, with the wrong enemy." For no group was this
description truer than for the newly independent U.S. Air Force.
U.S. Air Force had gained independence based on the idea that strategic
bombing could win a war independently of ground and sea forces. Since
the end of World War II, it had focused on preparing for nuclear war,
and most of its meagre funding had been directed toward this mission.
Therefore, when the Far East Air Force (FEAF), the U.S. Air Force’s
force in Asia, was ordered to Korea, it was composed of aging aircraft
and too few men to fly them. Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenburg
called FEAF "the shoestring Air Force." And it found that because Korea
was an agricultural nation with few industrial or military targets
(North Korea received supplies from China and the USSR), strategic
bombing would not affect the war. Other types of missions, often
requiring close coordination with land or sea forces, were required. At
the end of the war, only 0.2 percent of all missions flown were
strategic bombing. In contrast, almost half consisted of ground
interdiction (tactical bombing).
June 25, 1950, a group of U.S. B-29s based at the U.S. base in Guam also
began bombing targets in North Korea, with both conventional bombs and a
new precision-guided cruise missile, the VB-13 Tarzan. Within two
months, the few industrial targets were destroyed. Air Force commanders
pushed for more massive bombing, but the joint chiefs, not wanting to
rebuild another country or to gain reputations as terrorists, denied
permission. As the UN troops pushed the NKPA back over the 38th parallel
and then farther into the north, bombing was halted.
Although strategic bombing did not yield any apparent results, air
interdiction was more successful, especially as there were very few
roads or railroads leading from the north to the south. The raids
focused on NKPA’s supply routes to stop the flow of reinforcements and
supplies. In the beginning, NKPA tanks were particularly easy to find as
they were not escorted by anti-aircraft guns. When the tanks travelled at
night, they left their headlights on. The interdiction effort was
successful: NKPA gas tanks on the front lines went empty and troop
rations were reduced from rice, fish, meat, and vegetables to merely
rice. When the chief of staff of NKPA’s 13th Infantry was captured in
September 1950, he testified that "half of our personnel had lost the
stamina necessary to fight in mountainous terrain."
a year of advances and retreats, the sides settled into a two-year
stalemate, during which interdiction became even more important because
UN military planners hoped shortages would encourage peace negotiations.
However, the Communists, which now included Chinese troops as well, had
changed their travel methods and were protecting their convoys with
anti-aircraft artillery. They also used people to carry the supplies
off-road where the terrain could offer cover. Front line troops also
adjusted to smaller rations although the interdiction still meant that
life was not easy on the front, and the North was unable to launch a
major attack. During the peace negotiations, the chief North Korean
delegate told the UN team that "without direct support of your tactical
aerial bombing alone your ground forces would have been completely
unable to hold their present positions."
F-82G flown by Lt's Hudson and
Fraser to score the first air-to-air victory of the Korean War on June
was the first conflict during which most of the aerial fighting was done
by jets. There were still some propeller planes left, such as F-51
Mustangs, F4U Corsairs and the B-26 Marauder, but it was the
second-generation jets that ruled the skies, among them Lockheed F-80
Shooting Stars, MiG-15s, and North American F-86 Sabres. They fought
mainly in an area of southwest Korea nicknamed "MiG Alley." UN pilots
were forbidden to cross the border into China because of strict UN rules
of engagement. So they fought within a 6,500-square-mile
(16835-square-kilometer) area bordered by the Yellow Sea, Yalun River,
and China. The Communist pilots would leave from bases in China right
over the border with Korea, fly into Korea, engage the enemy, and then
return to the safety of the forbidden area.
F-80Cs of the 8th Fighter-Bomber
Russian MiG-15 debuted on November 15, 1950. With its swept-wing design
and Rolls-Royce jet engine, obtained from the British in a 1946 trade
agreement, the MiG inspired envy from the American pilots. The American
F-86 Sabre was in short supply but was roughly equivalent to the MiG.
When the two jets met in high-speed dogfights, closing in 10 miles in
less than 30 seconds, pilot skill was often the only difference. And the
United States had the advantage. The American pilots were well-trained,
mostly World War II veterans. The North Korean and Chinese pilots had
received cursory training in the Soviet Union and had no combat
experience. In June 1951, with the utmost secrecy, Soviet fighter units
began to be brought in. They were better trained and more aggressive,
willing to venture past MiG Alley. These units, however, were on
six-week rotations ands often just as a pilot became adjusted, he would
be returned to Russia. So by the end of the war, the Sabres had downed
10 MiGs for each Sabre lost.
A unique aspect of the Korean
War was the Pacific Airlift, the longest aerial supply line in history.
Each day more than 100 tons of emergency items, including major airplane
parts, were flown from the U.S. to Japan for trans-shipment to the
fighting units. On their return flights to the States, the cargo planes
carried seriously sick and wounded men, reducing to a matter of hours a
trip that ocean vessels required weeks to complete. This photo shows a
C-124 of the Pacific aerial pipeline unloading its cargo in Japan some
time in 1952.
Airlift techniques from the Berlin Airlift were perfected during Korea.
Airlifts were especially important during the first year of the war when
rapid advances and retreats would sometimes cut ground units off from
the main force. They would be rescued by airlift or have supplies such
as food, ammunition, medical supplies, and the beloved mail dropped to
them by airplanes and helicopters. The C-119 cargo plane was even
capable of dropping jeeps, big guns and on one occasion, a bridge to the
1st Marine Division during its retreat from the Chosin Reservoir. Cargo
planes also carried wounded troops from medical units to hospitals in
Helicopters, appearing in their first major conflict, also helped
transport men, especially those in trouble. During one operation, 12
Sikorsky S-55s moved a battalion of 1,000 Marines more than 16 miles in
four hours. In a mission initiated by the U.S. Air Force but taken over
by the army, the Bell H-13 Sioux evacuated troops from the battlefield
and delivered them to MASH (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) units right
behind the front lines, helping to increase soldiers’ chances of
surviving. Helicopters also aided in air-sea rescues, following distress
signals to rescue downed pilots. For many men on the ground, the planes
and helicopters were a lifeline.
July 27, 1953 an armistice was signed between the United States, North
Korea, and China. (There is still no peace treaty.) FEAF Commander
General Otto Weyland testified several years later that "we are pretty
sure that the Communists wanted peace, not because of a two-year
stalemate on the ground, but to get air power off their back." FEAF,
with support from the navy and the Marines, had been able to maintain
air superiority throughout the war. The conflict was ended, though not
resolved, as Korea remains a divided country with American troops
stationed on its borders. The conflict in Korea was a war of firsts: the
first jet war, the first helicopter war, the first major air war against
an agricultural nation and the first war of the nuclear era. As such,
there were plenty of lessons to be learned, some of which were
remembered and some which were quickly forgotten, as the world returned
its attention to the Cold War.