by Larry Davis & Many Others
During those dark early days of the Korean War, the US 5th Air Force F-80 Shooting Star pilots encountered a new and very menacing jet fighter in the skies over North Korea - the Mikoyan Gurevich type 15 or MiG-15. It was a small silver jet fighter with swept back wings and tail. Almost overnight, the MiG-15 obsoleted every other type in the theater and for the first time in a long time, the US Air Force did NOT have air superiority over a battlefield.
The Pentagon's answer was simple - "Send our own little silver jet fighter with swept wings to Korea", the North American F-86A Sabres of the veteran 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing. In early December 1950, the escort carrier USS Cape Esperance docked in Yokosuka Bay and unloaded the first of 75 F-86As. A few days after unloading, the first seven Sabres were ready for combat against the MiG-15.
But there was one little problem. In conversations with 5th AF pilots that had flown against the MiG-15, and after viewing gun camera film of some of the encounters, LtCol. John Meyer, CO of the 4th FIG, came to the conclusion that the resemblance between the MiG and the Sabre was such that it might be possible to mistake one for the other during combat.
Present during one of these meetings was Flt Lt J.A.O. `Omer' Levesque, an RCAF pilot that was TDY with the 4th Wing when they were alerted to go to Korea. Omer Levesque had been an ace during World War 2, quickly got permission from RCAF Headquarters to accompany the 4th Group into combat in Korea. As he sat listening to the conversation about the similarities between the MiG and the Sabre, he suggested that perhaps they could apply some quick identification marks like the D-Day bands that were applied to all tactical aircraft flying over France that fateful day in June 1944.
He made a quick sketch of the side profile of an F-86 and drew on the same vertical black and white bands that had been applied in June 1944 - three black and two white. He also suggested that they be applied to the wings, again just like 1944. But this was Korea and the Sabre was much more aerodynamic than anything flown in 1944. Lt Col Meyer looked at Levesque's drawings and ordered it done - with one change. The fuselage bands would be angled toward the front of the airplane. It fit the profile of the Sabre to a "T".
Thus it was that before any airplane left Kisarazu, Japan, for Kimpo AB, Korea, all previous unit markings were removed and the new black & white stripes were added to the fuselage and wings. In addition, a thin black stripe was added to the leading edge of the rudder as a group marking.
In September 1951, the first F-86E Sabres were unloaded in Japan. Although several made their way to the 4th Group at Kimpo, the majority of the new E model Sabres were bound for the 51st FIG based at Suwon AB, about 50 miles south of Kimpo. The 51st Wing was commanded by the greatest living ace in the US Air Force, LtCol Francis Gabreski, known to everyone as simply "Gabby". Gabby had flown with the 56th Group in World War 2, which were readily known to be non-conformist in every way including aircraft markings.
When it came time for the 51st Group to paint stripes on their airplanes as per Far East Air Force (FEAF) regulations, Gabby wouldn't hear of their airplanes looking like those of the 4th. They opted to paint their ID bands black and YELLOW. This would differentiate them from both the MiGs and the 4th Group Sabres. The 51st Group would have large yellow bands with thin black borders, painted on the fuselage and wings. No other unit markings would be carried, except for some small squadron badges under the cockpit.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the Yalu. 5th AF discovered that the 51st Group black and yellow bands were easier to see than the black and white bands found on 4th Group Sabres. In November 1951, FEAF changed the regulation in favor of the black and yellow bands. As airplanes were rotated through Kisarazu for maintenance, the black and white bands were removed and the new wide black and yellow bands were applied.
Now all the Sabres looked alike, which displeased both units' personnel. Something had to be changed so that pilots knew who was flying around them in the hostiles skies over Korea. The 4th decided that if they HAD to have black and yellow bands, why not have them on the tail also. Not to be outdone, the Suwon gang decided to really get gaudy and applied large black checks to the silver tail. Squadron identification was done by adding a large squadron badge to the 4th Group Sabres; while 51st Group squadrons painted a small color band on the tail just above the checkerboard.
Enter the 18th Wing. In January 1953, the 18th Fighter Bomber Group converted from F-51Ds to F-86Fs. Even though their primary mission was fighter bomber, the FEAF regulations still called for their airplanes to carry the black and yellow ID bands. Originally, the 18th adopted a tail band that was exactly the same size and shape as the 4th FIG Sabres, except that it was dark blue with red or yellow borders in the squadron colors. Later they adopted a variation of the tail stripes used on No. 2 Squadron, SAAF, Sabres, except the colors were red, white and blue.
In May the 8th FBG also converted to Sabres. They retained their old "sunburst" tail stripes in the squadron colors, to go with the FEAF black and yellow ID bands. And the FEAF regs went for all Sabre aircraft operating in the Far East. Just in different colors. One F-86D squadron in the 35th FIG even had polka dots!!! on the fuselage bands, which were in dark blue. (Does anyone have any color shots of these F-86Ds?) Even in Europe, some units adopted the FEAF ID bands for their Sabres which were operating very close to the Iron Curtain, just in different colors.
So there you have it. At least everything that we know to this point. We still can't put a definite date on exactly when FEAF ordered the 4th FIG to change over to the black and yellow bands but we have narrowed it down. Anyone with a firm answer for this can contact the Editor.
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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