A mass takeoff of 4th FIG F-86As from Suwon in the summer of 1951. It was not unusual to have 16 Sabres take off at this time. Later in the war, flights of four departed at five minute intervals so as to keep a constant MIGCAP near the MiG basses along the north side of the Yalu River. (Lon Walter)


by Lon Walter

It didn't start out to be a mission to Mukden, but if you'll take a look at a map of Korea, and follow my explanation, I think you'll understand how it could have happened. By way of background, at the time of this mission, going north of the Yalu River was strictly prohibited (Taboo, Verboten, DON'T DO IT!). The peace talks had just begun at Kaesong (later moved to Panmunjom), and crossing the Yalu by our forces might have caused a problem. Funny, though, it was OK for the Russians and their buddies to cross over to the south side. Oh, well! In any event, I must tell you from the perspective of a first lieutenant, we just didn't go across - intentionally. Close, sometimes, but...

On this particular summer day in 1951, the 335th Fighter Squadron (call sign "Awning") was to put up sixteen Sabres on a combat air patrol just south of the Yalu, in hopes that the enemy would challenge our right to be there. Lt. Col. Ben Emmert, squadron commander, was to lead the formation (Awning Able Lead). The plan was to patrol to near "bingo" fuel, and then the 335th would be relieved by the 336th (call sign "Pintail"). It had the makings of an interesting mission, but one never knew.

Now, Ben Emmert was a respected and beloved squadron commander. He was a WWII ace and was always aggressive in combat, but considerate of the men he was leading. I always felt privileged to fly in his flight, and I think everyone else did, too. He didn't make many mistakes, but he was a human being.

As we departed our base at K-13 (Suwon) and climbed out to the north (330 degrees, to be precise), we anticipated the normal 25 minute flight to MiG Alley (although it hadn't been named yet). Now is a good time, dear reader, to look at your map of Korea. There are three major river inlets along the west coast of Korea along our flight path, which normally made navigation a snap. The first river leads to Pyongyang, then further north, the second river leads to Anju-Sinanju, and the third river leads to Antung on the north bank and Sinuiju on the south - that one is the Yalu. My cockpit map didn't cover much to the north of Antung, because I never figured to go there.

Continuing our climb/cruise, we discovered that there was a blanket of clouds under us, but it was beautiful up where the Awning flights were cruising. After a while, we could see up ahead that the clouds stopped abruptly, and it was CAVU to the north. Just beyond the edge of the clouds, one of the river inlets was clearly visible, and as we crossed over it, the four flights of four began taking their combat spacing. Just south of the next river, we began our back and forth patrolling.

It was a beautiful day, and I figured we must have had quite a headwind on the way up, because it had taken almost thirty minutes to get there. I also enjoyed an unusually good view of the ground, because it was so clear. Somehow, the terrain looked different. We were well into the contrail level, and Colonel Emmert had briefed that this would let us see any MiGs that came up to our level as they, too, began conning. Soon (sooner than usual, it seemed), someone called "Bingo", and Awning Able Lead wheeled the sixteen Sabres to a heading of 150 degrees to return to Suwon - no action that day.

Just then, and because we were listening to Pintail squadron coming north to relieve us, we heard, "Pintail Able Lead, this is Four. I've got bogies making heavy contrails and heading south from across the river!" Pintail Able Lead replied, "Rog, I've got em. Looks like about sixteen. They must have formed up north of the Mizu (Yalu)."

Awning Able Lead, heading south, came up and said, "Where are they, Pintail, we're heading south, and don't see them." (Are you getting the picture here?)

I think thirty-two Sabre jocks suddenly figured it all out, and there was a massive silence on the radio, except for a "Good hunting, Pintail" as Awning passed over them. It was silent all the way home for Awning squadron, and not much was said during debriefing, either. Just another CAP with no MiG response.

Of course, what had happened, is that Awning Able Lead had mistaken the third river for the second. (Please check your map again.) The river we had been patrolling along was the river that leads to Mukden, deep in China (inlet number 4!). Colonel Emmert, God bless him, had made an honest navigation error. The good news is that, as far as I know, nothing more was said about this mission by friend or foe. Perhaps the "bad guys" who were watching on their radar and listening to our RT were just having a good chuckle. Who knows?

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