AIR TO GROUND IN THE F86A?

by Lon Walter

After the Chinese hordes poured across the Yalu river to rescue the defeated North Korean Army in December 1950, Allied forces began a steady retreat. The withdrawal would not end until UN forces finally halted the enemy in early January 1951 on a line running roughly from Osan on the west coast to Kangnung on the east coast. Two major air bases within South Korea had been overrun by the Chinese, these were Kimpo (K-14), near Seoul, and Suwon (K-13).

When Kimpo fell, the provisional squadron of F-86A's, which had operated so successfully for a month, was forced to return to Johnson Air Base, near Irumagawa, Japan, the main operating base (MOB) of the Fourth Fighter Wing. No F-86s remained in Korea, and only one air base suitable for F-86 operations was left in friendly hands, Taegu (K-2).

Although Taegu's distance from the Yalu River area made combat air patrol operations in that area impractical, it was decided to conduct limited air-to-ground operations with a small detachment out of K-2. Six Sabres (a mix from each of the three squadrons) began operations in mid-January, and ended in early February. This is the story of one such mission.

The pilots who had flown from Kimpo in December were the most experienced in the 4th Fighter Wing (Arguably, they were the most experienced group of jet pilots in the world.). For the new pilots, such as I, who had just recently gotten their wings, it was a time to build up flying time at Johnson Air Base, but there were virtually no facilities in Japan to conduct live air-to-air or air-to-ground gunnery. When the small detachment went to K-2, all of the youngsters wanted a piece of the action, experience or no!

So I counted myself as one lucky "second balloon" (a term affectionately bestowed upon new second lieutenant pilots) when I found myself at K-2 in the rustic quarters we shared with pilots from the 9th Squadron, 49th Fighter-Bomber Group (Lt. Col. "Squire" Williams, commanding). It was a bitter cold January, and the pot-bellied stove worked overtime to keep our huts livable.

For my first ever combat mission, I drew a flight of four led by Captain Martin C. Johansen, "Joe" to his contemporaries, but "Captain Johansen" to me. I suspect Joe viewed his flight with some trepidation. We were all second lieutenants, and my total F-86 flying time of around 95 hours was typical. None of us had ever fired a gun or shot a rocket from the F-86 (or any other aircraft, for that matter). But our leader briefed the three of us very carefully and went over the cockpit switchology and techniques to be used for the mission.

Captain Johansen's flight consisted of Second Lieutenants Otis P. (Flash) Gordon, Jack Bryant, and yours truly. As best I can recall, I was number four, and flew wing on Flash Gordon. Our aircraft were armed with 1200 rounds of .50 cal API (armor-piercing incendiary in case we attacked a tank), and two 5 inch HVARs (high velocity aircraft rocket). We also carried two 120 gallon droppable external fuel tanks. The only thing I remember having been told about the 5" rockets was that they were very unpredictable, and not to expect to hit anything with great precision (fat chance in any event!).

We were to take off from K-2 and proceed to the Suwon vicinity and contact a "mosquito" forward air controller (a USAF pilot flying a T-6 "Texan" aircraft, sometimes with an Army observer in the rear cockpit). The take-off itself was interesting, because the Taegu runway was PSP (pierced steel planking), which had a tendency to "ripple" as an aircraft rolled along. It was wide enough to support four ship formation take-offs - a rarity then and later.

As we climbed to about 20,000 ft, the flight to Suwon took only a few minutes, and we got a good look at the snowy and mountainous Korean terrain. Captain Johansen soon contacted "Mosquito Poison", who told us that there was a large Chinese force in foxholes on a hillside overlooking the Suwon airbase. Mosquito Poison would mark the target with a "willie pete" (white phosphorus) smoke rocket, and he cleared us to direct our guns and rockets into the vicinity of his rocket impact.

We all saw the rocket smoke, and set up our switches for guns on the first few passes, then rockets when we were low on ammunition. We fell into trail formation and set up a gunnery pattern very much like a small rectangular traffic pattern. For the life of me, I could see no foxholes, and no sign of life on that hillside, but watched our flight leader roll in and fire at the hillside, followed by Jack Bryant and Flash Gordon. I reasoned that as I dived towards the target as Captain Johansen had done, I'd probably be able to make out what it was that I was shooting at. Wrong!

We made about three gunnery passes each, then Captain Joe called for us to set up for the two rocket passes. The first pass went OK, I guess, and once again, all I could say was that we seemed to be hitting the mountainside. As Flash Gordon pulled out of his second rocket pass, Jack Bryant called out, "Look at that! They're coming out of their holes and running up the hill!" Captain Joe acknowledged and said he saw them, too. I still saw nothing but trees, but lined up again on where we had all been shooting, and fired my last rocket. Bryant called, "Good shot, Lon, you hit right in the middle of them". We were out of ammunition now, and Mosquito Poison thanked us for a good job and cleared us to return to base.

En route to Taegu, I had time to reflect on some aspects of the mission. Since it had been the first time I'd ever fired ordnance from an airplane, I really had no concept of judging range, but had simply bored in until I thought I was about at the right distance, then fired. Looking back after many years of experience, I know I must have been far out of range on each pass. The other three "balloons" most likely did the same. But if we were doing such a poor job of shooting, why did the Chinese troops leave their holes to run up the hillside? My guess then, and to this day, is that these troops had never seen an F-86 (and remember, we were carrying 120 gal. underwing fuel tanks), and the only other fighters they had seen carrying underwing tanks were F-80s and F-84s, which carried napalm in underwing tanks. They probably figured these strange looking fighters with swept wings had just about finished with their guns and rockets, and were about to drop napalm. They hated napalm, of course, and panic set in.

As we debriefed our mission back at Taegu, an intelligence specialist came into the debriefing room waving a piece of paper. "You guys must have really done a job! The mosquito pilot called back an estimate of 200+ enemy troops KBA (killed by air)." I was astounded, but gratified that we had done our job well.

I flew only four more missions out of Taegu, and the entire detachment was recalled to Johnson AB. The F-86A obviously was not suited for the fighter-bomber role, but perhaps our few missions resulted in lessons which were used to design and build the excellent F-86F and F-86H fighter-bombers. In a few short weeks, the 4th Fighter would be flying out of Suwon, this time in the air-to air role again, and I often wondered if there were any signs of our ground attack in the nearby hills, but I never got an opportunity to look into it.


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