the Berlin Airlift
the Korean War
air war in Vietnam
Linebacker bombing raids
the Falklands War
Air War over Morocco
the first Gulf War
Venezuela’s 1992 coup attempt
the Serbian bombings
the MPQ-53 Radar

the Korean War

Map of the Korean Conflict, 1950-1953

Korea 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.

On 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.

The 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). 

On 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." 

After 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 27, 1950.

Korea 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 Group.

The 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 Japan.

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.

On 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.