The Blooding of America’s Jet Fighters

Feb. 1, 2013

When North Korea ignited its war against South Korea in June of 1950, the US was not ready. America was still discarding World War II hardware, struggling with budgets, and discharging excess pilots.

Air superiority in Korea was not assured until F-86s, such as these, arrived on the peninsula. (Photo by Richard Schoeneman via Warren Thompson)

The Air Force’s young jet fleet was thrust into a trial by fire. Air Force P-80 pilots on a comfortable tour in Japan quickly became combat F-80 pilots. As the bitter winter of 1950-1951approached, US marines were securing positions close to the Chinese border when disaster struck: Waves of communist Chinese forces rolled across the border. American forces were brutally routed as they retreated southward, nearly driven from the peninsula. Most of the limited US Air Force units establishing positions in Korea were overrun.

With a series of heroic actions, US ground forces had held a tenuous line at the Pusan Perimeter near the southern tip of the peninsula in 1950 and fought for their lives at places such as The Punch Bowl, Heartbreak Ridge, and Sandbag Castle in 1951, and Pork Chop Hill in 1953. Close air support was vital.

The 49th Fighter-Bomber Group was based at the airfield designated as K-2, near the town of Taegu, and I was one of its pilots. This was 60 miles north of Pusan. Along with an Air Force F-51 unit on our left flank and some Marine Corps and Navy units on our right, at the time, we were the extent of the fighter force in Korea.

All of our birds were C models, and though we operated off 5,000 feet of rough, undulating pierced plank runway, nestled in the valley of the dry Naktong River, we could still carry two huge external fuel tanks and lots of bombs, rockets, and napalm. We topped that off with six very accurate .50 caliber machine guns in the nose, superb for strafing.

Our maintenance troops were working out of tents, surrounded by nothing but dirt. Operational aids were about nonexistent with no radio range or instrument letdown procedure, and no runway lighting—and a close to worthless 500-watt radio compass homer.

Regardless of the mission, the briefing cycle was pretty much the same, with one a.m. and one p.m. general briefing. Pilots who were on the schedule would assemble in group ops to be brought up to speed on the overall war situation. The weather gent would present his wild guess and finish up with what we might expect when we got back, closing with, “If you can’t get in here, go to Pusan.”

Enter FACs

Broughton as a first lieutenant with his F-80 at K-2, shortly after he was assigned No. 844 as his primary aircraft. He and his crew chief labeled it with their names and got first call for the bird when his mission schedule coincided with the aircraft being ready for combat. (Photos via Jack Broughton)

Pusan was on the south coast and usually had a few feet of separation between the clouds and the ocean. If you could determine you were close to Pusan, you could let down outbound over the water and hope to break out with enough room to turn back toward the coast and see if you could find a place to land.

After the briefing, each flight leader took his three wingmen back to the squadron for the important planning of their particular mission.

On close air support, pilots worked within a few yards of the US troops, and since there was usually little radio contact with ground units (the forward air controller concept was not quite fleshed out yet), we had to depend on colored cloth panels to define bomb lines.

Ground forces would stretch out 40-foot-long cloth panels for us that were half red and half green to define the bomb line. Over the red: Hold your fire; over the green: Go get ’em. We blew the enemy away with our bombs, or wiped them out with napalm, or ripped them up with pinpoint .50-caliber fire. Fuel permitting we hunted north of their positions, as we did on one morning when we spotted over 200 enemy marching to the ridge we had just cleared. We decimated them with our guns. The North Korean plan to attack that night was terminated.

Airborne outfits staged through our base before jumping into a bitter battle—and one was immediately pinned down and outnumbered by the enemy. The next day we flew CAS, and they recognized the colored marking on our aircraft noses. You could see them standing up in their foxholes, waving and cheering as we whizzed over their heads to clear the nasty brown hillside ahead with napalm and gunfire. When they rotated out of combat and came back through K-2, we couldn’t buy a drink at the club if there was one of them in sight.

Suddenly there was a requirement for a forward air control program. Fifth Air Force reached into the squadrons to pull protesting fighter pilots out for temporary stints with the Army units. The FACs were given a jeep, a radio, and one or two airmen and told to get on the road and report to a specific Army commander in the midst of some lopsided battle. Unfortunately, these air controllers had no training for this job, and coordination and communications were far from adequate. Slowly, the airmen tried to make it work.

1st Lt. Joe Connley (l) and 1st Lt. Joe Frey compare notes after a mission in 1951.(Photos via Jack Broughton)

Sometimes we worked with pilots flying our old AT-6 trainers as “Mosquito” aircraft. The Mosquitos would search out targets, then call us in and direct us onto what they had found. Most of the Mosquito guys were frustrated fighter pilots, and they did a superb job, armed only with target-marking smoke rockets and white phosphorus markers. It took a lot of balls to fly low and slow while searching for people who were anxious to shoot you down. Soon, the enemy learned if they fired on a Mosquito and identified their position, a flight of fighters would come down to root them out.

Taegu was one huge piece of scraped out dirt; thus the support troops worked in mud, or ice and snow, or hot and humid blowing dust. Each squadron had a section of dirt where they parked their aircraft. The heavy maintenance folks had no equipment such as lifting devices, so battle-damaged hulks were fork-lifted onto three or four used fuel barrels, to possibly be repaired, but probably to serve as a spare parts hulk. One maintenance tent was allotted to each squadron for aircraft records processing, storage, and a coffee pot. But the support airmen never faltered and, despite the harsh conditions, usually had a smile when they greeted the pilots.

Security could be a problem on a scantily guarded patch in the midst of civilian territory. One morning about 4 a.m., after finishing preflight preparation, I trudged across the dark dirt thinking about the details of takeoff. As I approached my bird my crew chief had just spotted a Korean civilian preparing to stuff a handful of hacksaw blades down my air inlet. He yelled and, unarmed, charged the intruder, and as the civilian tried to run away the nearby air policeman blew the intruder away with his .45 sidearm.

I had to tippy-toe past the body. As I hoisted a foot onto the cockpit ladder, I found my thinking had switched to our support guys’ dedication.

Due to moving units around and weather conditions, our fighter outfits sometimes utilized each other’s airstrips. Then 5th Air Force decided to try bringing in another entire group to fly with us on a joint mission out of K-2, in what was laughingly called “coordinated action” or a major air strike.

Five Before Breakfast

Broughton’s F-80, No. 844. He had flown a mission that morning. In the afternoon, he loaned “his” airplane to a newly arrived lieutenant—who promptly crashed it on the runway. (Photos via Jack Broughton)

You could bet on chaos. Each fighter group would provide about 24 fighters. The groups would stage at opposite ends of the runway and take off in opposing directions. The missions were usually scheduled for the hottest time of day, ensuring the takeoff show would be dramatic. More often than not the air and ground would be saturated with tumbling external stores and disintegrating aircraft—from both directions. The group penalized with the tailwind behind them would take off first, and the guys at the other end would brace for the ensuing terror show of aborting aircraft, burning brakes, jettisoned bombs, tanks, and Jet Assisted Takeoff bottles tumbling toward them.

On at least two occasions, fatally flaming and crashing aircraft came into the opposite staging area. It was scary, with no tactical benefit, but 5th Air Force insisted on trying it a few times before tossing the idea.

The arrival of the 4th Fighter-Interceptor Wing and its F-86s blew another hole in North Korea’s plans as the Sabre pilots repeatedly cleaned house in “MiG Alley.” US air superiority was guaranteed, there would be no MiG harassment, and the Korean air lanes belonged to the US.

As our forces pushed north, so did our missions. We sought out and destroyed the enemy’s capability to reach the front lines. The immediate effect for us was some neat missions, like the one where my flight hit five live locomotives before breakfast.

Predawn missions out of K-2 were not usually fun rides. They could be unusually demanding, especially if it was very dark and wet—like it was one morning when we briefed for a predawn armed reconnaissance mission in the Wonsan area. By the time we bounced down the pierced plank runway on takeoff there was a sliver of predawn light, and I stayed under the weather and started a 270 degree turn to the left. My flight zipped into position as I approached the 270 point and we rolled out at about 200 feet headed for the homer on top of the control tower. The needle on my radio compass was flopping around, even at that minimum range, but gave a firm position and time hack to establish my outbound course. I eased back on the stick and we were on the gauges as I set up a time and distance course toward Wonsan.

1st Lt. George Womack “salutes” the 16 MiG pilots he and Broughton outdueled in a 22-minute dogfight as operations officer Maj. John Anderson looks on. (Photo via Jack Broughton)

An hour and 15 minutes later we were still on the gauges, but time and distance said we should be someplace close to Wonsan. The maps we had weren’t accurate, and the printed height of the mountaintops was a guess. I always added a thousand feet, but even that was not comfortable as you sneaked down in the murk over unknown terrain. As we descended to drop dead altitude there were no breaks and I was about to pack it in when a few wisps of cloud broke apart and fluttered past my nose. After descending another hundred feet I was looking into a three-mile-diameter bowl, with decent visibility and scattered rain showers, and sure enough, the surrounding mountain peaks were poking up into the clouds at just about my 1,000-foot adjusted drop dead altitude. Straight ahead was a fat, black, steam-puffing live locomotive.

Stitch and Boom

That morning those running the Vladivostok to Wonsan rail line figured the lousy weather would protect them and were not expecting any crazy Americans to be milling about in the storm-covered mountains. By dawn they had parked their boxcars in tunnels until the next night run. But they were late in parking their locos inside the secure mountain tunnels that were at opposite ends of the railroad track that crossed the floor of the bowl below us.

Chugging blithely beneath us was not one but five live locomotives.

I was already lined up on the closest loco in the southwest corner of the bowl. I stitched his boiler and he went boom. My element hit the one racing for the northeast tunnel and we took turns blowing two of the three caught in between the two dead ones. That left one spooked train driver madly alternating between forward and reverse as his exits closed and the chase narrowed. Finally, going full chug toward the southwest, he realized he had goofed and was heading full throttle toward a stationary, steaming ruptured buddy. You could see the fire covering his molten wheels as he locked the brakes and ground the metal wheels flat. I hit the train just as the driver ran head-on into what was left of No. 4 locomotive.

Film from an F-86 Sabre shows a damaged MiG’s pilot desperately trying to reach safety in Manchuria. He didn’t make it. (USAF photo via Warren Thompson)

It would be a while before they cleared enough of that mess to get supplies flowing to the south again. The first stages of stalemate were appearing amidst political-military struggle, and to the pilots it meant frustration as it slowed or halted our advances. It did however again enlarge our mission scope to include armed reconnaissance, as far north as the Chinese border. That meant we were in MiG country.

One afternoon we drew an armed reconnaissance assignment just south of the Yalu River. My No. 4 aborted on takeoff, and that left me with George Womack, a real good old stick, as No. 3, but No. 2 was a rookie second lieutenant. He was also on his first mission in a while, because I had disciplined him with a week on mobile control—sitting in a booth at the end of the runway, making sure landing fighters’ gear was down—because he had wandered out of formation on a similar mission.

As we approached the Yalu River and started a turn, I saw No. 2 sliding out of formation, as before, just as George blurted out, “Utah Charlie, MiGs at four o’clock—closing!” I was already trying to move to cover my errant wingman’s vulnerable tail as I commanded, “Break right.” Too late. A MiG picked him off on the first pass.

That left George and me with a unique opportunity. We had 16 MiGs cornered, all to ourselves.

A lot of the MiG pilots were locals, and often not too well experienced or motivated, but their Russian instructors were usually good. They had a huge speed advantage and the ability to yo-yo on us at will. George and I knew how to get max performance out of our birds, and you could turn the aircraft tightly, especially with cannon fire coming from your six. If we could hang together as a flight of two, avoid giving them a good shot at us, and work them far enough south so their fuel state required them to go home, we might have a chance.

Their lead guy and his wingman were on my tail almost instantly and George and I were standing on a wingtip watching them miss. They just kept coming, element after element. Some of them were not too tough to beat, but there was never a break in the attack. When they did get close enough to pull the trigger, it seemed their ammo went all over the place. Their guns must have been poorly harmonized—which was fine with us.

Broughton’s commander wanted a gunnery range near K-2, theoretically requiring an agreement between the US and South Korean governments. Broughton and another pilot scouted the area, found a spot near some dwellings, and loaded their jeep with cigarettes, cookies, candy, and canned goods to “sweeten” the deal for the villagers. A handshake and a shared smoke later, the “international” deal was done. (Photo by Jack Broughton)

We wound up tangling with those 16 MiGs for the unheard-of duration of 22 minutes, which was a real test of muscle, endurance, and acrobatic skill for us. I was sweating like a pig, my sunglasses wet and smeared, sweat burning my eyes, but I did manage to blurt out a radio call for any help, especially F-86 MiG-killer help, but nobody responded. I had just gotten rid of a MiG element and was breaking back hard left, when for the first time in a while I could not see any MiGs—bad news. I rolled to inverted, and there he was, the lead guy, under me and behind me, nose coming up on my tailpipe and closing fast.

The Symbol of the Blooding

When he pulled the trigger the sky lit up with what looked like a shotgun blast of tracers without concentration on me. I kept pulling and rolling as his speed flung him past my right side. I was upside down looking right down into his cockpit, a few feet away, and he looked frustrated. He was all hunched over, still staring at his gunsight and churning the stick around trying to hit something, but he had no shot on me. I continued my roll, then kicked hard right rudder and as I skidded into trail I clamped down on the trigger and let go with a six-gun .50-caliber blast right up his tailpipe. Since I was close to stalled out from max performance turning, and he had a bag of speed, he wasn’t in range very long.

I don’t know what damage I did, but he rolled into a split S and headed back to Antung with 15 sloppy MiG drivers behind him.

The F-86s continued to do great work in MiG Alley, and some of their newest model Sabres, with superstars such as Walker M. Mahurin among those flying them, were involved in air-to-ground missions. Newer F-84s replaced the F-80s, and I found them comfortable to fly in combat, but stalemate and winding down dictated a different scenario. The F-80s and their pilots remain the symbol of the blooding of the US jet fleet.

Those of us who worked with Korea’s early FACs can marvel at the high degree of sophistication of today’s counterparts. It is an entirely different approach, with imbedded FACs equipped with GPS, modern weapons, and superior communications, who train and learn and live in company with their Army comrades. They call on highly trained pilots with aircraft such as the A-10, F-15E, and F-16, equipped with precision guided munitions. The people and the equipment are different—but the mission is the same.

Jack Broughton is a retired USAF colonel and fighter pilot. During his time on Active Duty he was the recipient of four Distinguished Flying Crosses, two Silver Stars, and the Air Force Cross. He is the author of two memoirs from the Vietnam War era, Thud Ridge and Going Downtown. This article was adapted from Broughton’s Rupert Red Two, published in 2007. His most recent article for Air Force Magazine, “Pain and Gain in the Century Series,” appeared in September 2012.