THE FLYING CHEETAHS IN KOREA

by Larry Davis

The United Nations went to war against the North Korean forces that were attempting to take control of the entire Korean peninsula. One of the first nations to commit major combat forces to the conflict was the Union of South Africa. On 4 August 1950, the South African Cabinet approved commitment of a fighter squadron complete with ground personnel to the Korean conflict. All members of this squadron would be volunteers.

On 27 September 1950, No. 2 Squadron, "the Flying Cheetahs", left Pretoria and boarded the troopship M.V.Tjisadane in Durban Harbor. The ship docked in Yokohama on 5 November and the personnel went directly to Johnson AB, Japan, to pick up equipment, supplies and a full compliment of ex-USAF F-51 D Mustangs. Commandant S. van Breda Theron took four F51 Ds to Pusan (K-9) on
15 November and flew their first mission four days later on
19 November, before moving to K-24, Pyongyang East, where they were attached to the 168th Fighter Bomber Group, 6002nd Tactical Support Wing.

The Cheetahs weren't at K-24 very long, since Chinese intervention in the war was rapidly forcing all UN forces to retreat back down the peninsula. The Cheetahs abondoned K-24 and set up shop intitially at Suwon (K-13) on 2 December, then moved to Chinhae (K-10) on
17 December, where they were permanently attached to the other
F-51 -equipped unit in 5th Air Force, the 18th FBG. The mission of the Cheetahs would be close air support of UN forces along the main line of resistance (MLR), and road interdiction missions throughout North Korea.

By February 1951, the squadron had flown their 1000th mission. Two months later they recorded their 2000th. No. 2 Squadron was, indeed, an integral portion of the UN battle plan for defeating the Communists in Korea. On 8 July 1951, Cheetah pilots struck the airfield at Kangdong, just north of Pyongyang. Following their bomb runs over the runways, the Mustangs formed up for the flight home to K-10. Suddenly the RT erupted with the exclamation "MiGs!". Four Chinese MiG-15s attacked the much slower F-51 Ds. But the Mustang pilots simply turned into them again and again and the MiG pilots finally tired of the game and went home.

Nine months later, on 20 March 1952, a flight of Cheetah Mustangs was again jumped by MiG jets. This time the MiGs scored and the Cheetahs countered. Lt. D.L. Taylor's F-51 D was badly damaged by MiG gunfire and he was forced to dive for the deck and head for home. His Mustang was last seen streaming heavy smoke. As Lt. Taylor headed back for Chinhae, the MiGs regrouped and attacked again. But the Mustangs just kept turning into the MiGs to avoid further damage. During one of these maneuvers, Lt. J.S. Enslin pulled his Mustang hard around and into the path of one of the MiGs. The MiG flew directly through his guns and Lt. Enslin pulled the trigger and watched his bullets strike the right wing of the jet. The MiG pilot promptly turned and ran for the safety of the Yalu River. Lt. Taylor's Mustang never made it back to Chinhae and he was listed MIA.

The Cheetah pilots had seen enough. They didn't want any part of MiG-fighting in the F-51. They wanted something that was on a par with the MiG-I5 in every way. In late 1952, that "something" was made available to them in the form of brand new F-86F Sabres. In October 1952, 5th Air Force made the decision to re-equip the 18th FBG, including No. 2 Squadron, with F-86 Sabres. These aircraft would be brand new F-86F-30 fighter-bombers with the new strengthened wing that had additional underwing hard points for carrying bombs in addition to the much-needed external fuel tanks.

On 27 December 1952, No. 2 Squadron flew its last missions in the veteran F-5I Ds. But problems with the deliveries of the Sabres held up the conversion until early 1953. On 30 December 1952, the 18th Wing moved from Chinhae to the new air base that had been built at Osan in anticipation of the arrival of the F86s.

It would be no easy task for the South African air and ground crews to transition into the Sabre. None of the pilots had ever flown a jet, nor had any of the ground crews maintained an aircraft as complicated as the F86. Beginning on 7 January 1953, a mobile training detachment for the F-86 came from Tsuiki to Osan to begin the conversion training. It continued eight hours a day, seven days a week until the task was completed. Several experienced pilots from the veteran 4th and 51st Interceptor Wings were transferred into the 18th to ease the pilot transition.

On 28 January 1953, the l8th Fighter Bomber Wing received its first three F-86F Sabres. One aircraft, F86F #52-4352, carried a distinctive orange, white, and blue stripe on the vertical tail, the colors of South Africa, with Springbok insignias on the wings and fuselage. The other two aircraft had 18th FBG tail bands. On 30 January 1953, Commandant Ralph Gerneke, commander of 2 Sq., and Major J.S.R. Wells became the first two South African pilots to fly the Sabre.

On 22 february, the first mission was flown. It was a MiG Sweep along the Yalu flown by the commanders of the three squadrons in the 18th Group. Major Jim Hagerstrom, CO of the 67th Squadron led the flight, with Commandant Gerneke as no. 2, Colonel Maurice Martin, new CO of the 18th, was no. 3, and Major Harry Evans, CO of the 12th Sq., flew no.4. Although several flights of MiGs were called out, combat with the speedy Russian jets was not accomplished. Hagerstrom eventually scored 6.5 MiG kills to become the first and only ace from the l8th Group. He had earlier gotten two while flying with the 4th Group, giving him a total of 8.5.

The first dive-bomb mission was flown on 14 April, and the first close support of troops along the MLR, was flown on 27 April. Sabres from the 18th Group, with top cover from 4th and 51st Group Sabres, knocked Radio Pyongyang (Ping-Pong Radio) off the air during the May Day attack led by General Glenn Barcus, boss of 5th Air Force.

At 1000 hours on 27 July 1953, the Korean Armistice agreement was signed, stopping the fighting in Korea. Throughout that final day of the war, UN aircraft roamed the skies over North Korea searching for targets of opportunity. The Cheetah Sabres were among the many flights attempting to minimize the Communist forces that were being jammed into North Korea before the agreement took effect. Cheetah Sabres flew forty one sorties on that final day. Major J.F. Nortje flew his 100th mission, and 2Lt Wilmans; was the last Cheetah to touch down back at Osan. At 2201 hours, the Armistice went into effect and all UN aircraft had Flight to be on the ground and/or south of the bomb line. Lt. Wilmans mission was the 12,067th mission of the war flown by pilots of No. 2 Squadron.

On 1 October 1953, No. 2 Squadron ceased all operational flying and began turning their Sabres over to 5th AF units still operational in Korea. The last aircraft were returned on 11 October, and all South African personnel had departed Korea by 29 October. The final tally for No. 2 Squadron was impressive indeed. Of the 12, 067 missions flown, 10,3 73 were in F-5I Ds and 1,694 were flown in Sabres. They had destroyed 891 vehicles, 44 tanks, 221 pieces of artillery, 147 antiaircraft sites, 11 locomotives, 553 rail cars, 408 ammunition and supply dumps, dropped 152 bridges, and destroyed 9,837 buildings. Some 2,276 enemy troops fell to squadron weapons during the war.

osses included twenty six pilots listed as KIA, with eight more who were taken prisoner and repatriated under Operation BIG SWITCH. Two ground personnel were killed in accidents. Of the ninetyfive
F-51D Mustangs assigned to the squadron, seventy-four were lost either to enemy action or operational problems. Of the total of twenty-two Sabres that were assigned to the squadron, six were lost.

So impressed were the veterans of No. 2 Squadron that they campaigned to have the F-86F Sabre become the primary fighter aircraft of the South African Air Force. In 1956, the South African Air Force began receiving Canadair Mk. 6 Sabres, flying them well into the 1960s before retirement. Sabrejet Classics salutes the pilots and crews of No. 2 Squadron, SAAF = "The Flying Cheetahs", for a job well done.


No portion of this article may be used or reprinted without permission from the President of the F-86 Sabre Pilots Association or the editor of Sabre Jet Classics magazine.


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