WHO WERE THOSE MASKED MEN?
edited by Lon Walter
Except for personal comments by the Sabrejet Classics editor, this article is largely an abridged version of "Uncertain Enemies: Soviet Pilots In The Korean War", written by Captain Michael J. McCarthy, USAF, and published in the Spring 1997 issue of Air Power History, published by the Air Force Historical Foundation, George C. Marshall Library, Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, VA 24450. The F-86 Sabre Pilots Assn. is indebted to the Air Force Historical Foundation for permitting the use of their material.
This article may come as no surprise to some readers of Sabrejet Classics, but I suspect many of you will file it under "suspicions confirmed". Those of us who flew against the MiG-15s in the Korean War may recall that we were more than a little suspicious about who was in the cockpit. Most of us got close enough to easily identify the markings on the enemy fighters. Until 1953 these were almost always North Korean or more rarely, Chinese. Some of us were able to look our enemy in the eye, although usually not for long. In my case, a MiG pilot once joined on my wing, and we stared at each other before we separated rapidly for a variety of reasons. Behind his oxygen mask, his eyes were as big as saucers. And I suspect, so were mine. The appearance of these enemy pilots gave rise to some pretty educated guesses about their nationalities.
IDENTITY OF MIG PILOTS
Well, if there were any doubts remaining out there, you can put your minds at ease. If you flew in the early days of Sabre vs. MiG combat, i.e. 1950/51/52, odds are good that you were fighting Soviet pilots, flying Soviet Air Force MiGs. Their units were rotated in and out of Manchuria, and were constrained by many operational limitations similar to our own. Chinese MiG units were operational in late 1951, and they stationed MiGs at three bases in Manchuria. North Korean involvement in the air war is riot widely documented, but is presumed to have been much smaller than the Soviet and Chinese.
Much of this has been revealed since the 'end' of the Cold War although except for publications addressing military aviation matters, it has not been widely reported. Many of the clues which confirmed this activity were based upon intercepted radio transmissions. As reported by Colonel Walker "Bud" Mahurin in his biography "Honest John"-"...all of the enemy air-to-air and air-to-ground radio transmissions were Russian." Other Americans reported pilots with distinct non-Asian appearances parachuting from MiGs. And in 1952 Polish Air Force MiG pilot who defected in Europe, report that Soviet flight instructors in his country had flown combat in Korea. Final confirmation of the identity of most MiG pilots came from debriefing returning POWs, many of whom observed Soviets flying MiGs.
REASONS FOR MAINTAINING SECRECY
What may be news to almost everyone is that our leaders, both military and civilian, were aware of this early in the war. Yet they chose to enlighten neither the American public, nor, the way, the guys who were fighting in Korea!
In fact, both the Soviet and U.S. governments kept this a secret for almost forty years. Early on, both governments chose this course in order to avoid public reaction which might have led to a larger conflict. Later it was simply easier not to raise the issue. For whatever reasons, it wasn't until 1989 that both governments admitted that they actually fought against each other in the early days of the Cold War. Lost in the euphoria of a declining Cold War, these revelations were greeted with hardly a raised eyebrow. Since then, Soviet pilots have provided in-depth interviews, describing their experiences.
ORGANIZATION OF SOVIET FORCES The extent of direct Soviet involvement in the Korean War would have shocked most Americans. Soviet air defense forces were organized under the 64th Fighter Aviation Corps, headquartered at Andong (Antung to Sabre pilots), in Manchuria. Flying units operated from three bases in the region, namely Andong, Tungfend, and Myau-Gou, and were organized in three fighter divisions, a night fighter regiment, and a naval fighter regiment. A fighter division was rotated as a unit each six to eight weeks, which meant that periodically, 'green' units were engaged.
The units were drawn from Soviet Air Force Air Defense Units or PVO. Generally the best units and pilots had been stationed in the Moscow Air Defense District, and most units were drawn from that area. Most pilots were veterans of World War Two, although apparently only a few were 'aces'. The size of the 64th Corps eventually reached 26,000 personnel, and altogether 72,000 Soviet military personnel, including 5,000 pilots, served in the Korean War. The total aircraft strength of the corps reached at least 150 MiG-15s.
KILL RATIO CLAIMED
Soviet forces claimed 1309 American aircraft kills of all types, while admitting to losing some 350 aircraft and 200 pilots. American records generally agree that U.S. losses were around 1300, but only 139 were lost in air-to-air combat. The rest were lost to anti-aircraft fire or for other reasons. The U.S. claims 823 MiG-15 kills (792 by Sabre pilots). Some of the downed MiGs may have been piloted by Chinese or North Koreans.
FLIGHT RESTRICTIONS ON MIG PILOTS
While American pilots were chafing at restrictions which prevented them from attacking enemy airfields and overtly conducting operations north of the Yalu River, Soviet commanders voiced similar complaints. Their air operations were limited to avoid the possibility that a Soviet pilot could be captured. In May 1951, a Soviet lieutenant was shot down while attacking B-29s, ejected safely, and landed in UN-controlled territory. Using his pistol, he committed suicide rather than be captured. In another case in early 1952, a MiG15 pilot bailed out over the Yellow Sea, and U.S. airmen set up a fighter cover while calling for rescue forces. Other MiGs broke through the cover and strafed their man in the water. He was never found by American rescue forces.
As seen by Lieutenant General Georgi Lobov, the corps commander, the restrictions levied by Soviet leadership on their units flying in Korea included 1) no flying over water, and 2) no flying over enemy-controlled territory. Evidence that these rules were precisely followed can be found in the fact that MiG-15s were almost never seen south of a Pyongyang-Wonsan line, and generally remained north of Sinanju. General Lobov complained that these restrictions created a 'sanctuary' for American pilots, and the Americans 'craftily' took advantage of the situation by going out to sea when they found themselves at a disadvantage, then returning to resume the fight. Sabre pilots voiced similar complaints about their adversaries.
Orders from higher headquarters plagued Soviet commanders in other ways. Colonel Yevgeni Pepelyayev, the highest scoring Soviet ace, complained about his pilots being ordered to speak Chinese or Korean on the radio, "It was impossible psychologically in the heat of battle to use a foreign language you hardly knew. So after a week or two we just decided to ignore the order. The top brass started complaining, so I told them, Go and fight yourselves!'"
OTHER OPERATIONAL PROBLEMS
Apparently MiG pilots, as do all fighter pilots, detested sitting alert. General Lobov described the enemy outnumbered us 8-1....We had to sit stewing in our cockpits for hours on end. We had to be on duty, waiting, but the Americans could choose the time. When (we learned of approaching Americans), I had only seconds to prepare my men....It was very tough always having to give orders at the last minute over the radio. Many pilots fell sick. We did not have state-of-the-art flying suits which the Americans enjoyed."
SOME CLOSING THOUGHTS
Clearly, the lives and experiences of Sabre pilots and MiG pilots were marked by certain undeniable similarities. Looking back, words spoken by ace Yevgeni Pepelyayev, except for the specifics, might have been spoken by a Sabre pilot: "For us, Korea was both a love and an anguish. Back in the 50s we were defending North Korea, and we learned to care for the people. We also felt love for the Chinese people, on whose land our regiments were stationed. But I lost friends there. Soviet pilots lie in the Russian cemetery at Port Arthur. I still remember those sorrowful moments when they buried my fellow servicemen, excellent pilots, my wingman Sasha Roshkov, Fedya Shebanov,...."
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.
Return to Classics Page