Korea, the Land of the Morning Calm. But in the early morning hours of a sunny Sunday in June 1950, that calm was shattered by the crash of artillery shells and the clanking of tank tracks. All-out war had come to the slender peninsula jutting out from the Asian mainland just cast of China. Three years and one month later, the fighting would cease. But in those three years of war, as many US personnel would be killed in action as in the eleven years of war in Vietnam.
Korea has long been known as the most conquered nation on earth. From the Mongols of Kublai Khan to the Japanese at the turn of the century, Korea has almost never been Korean. The reason was simple, the Korean people were a peace-loving nation with no ambitions other than to be left alone, which they rarely were.
After the end of World War Two, Korea was 'temporarily' occupied by Allied forces - Soviet forces in the north, US in the south. Geographically and politically, Korea was divided along the 38th Parallel. The north was a rugged mountainous terrain, with heavy industry. The south, with its flat lands and rolling hills, was primarily agricultural in nature. The north, being occupied by Soviet forces after the war, had a totalitarian, communist government. While the south, being under the influence of American forces, was close to a democratic nation.
The Cold War had already begun, and confrontations between the Communists and the US had already made headlines. But cooler heads always prevailed and the world had averted war more than once since the end of World War Two. Both sides wanted to unify Korea, but under far different types of government. The Communists wanted to extend the Bamboo Curtain to the tip of the Korean peninsula; while the United Nations wanted to give Korea back to its people under its own government.
On 25 June 1950, the Cold War went 'hot' when North Korean forces equipped with Soviet tanks and trained by Soviet military men, sought to reunify Korea by force. The South Korean military, which was little more than a 'police force' equipped with small arms, was quickly overrun, and fell back in full retreat down the peninsula. The only American forces in Korea were advisors to the Korean military.
President Truman quickly organized an airlift to remove all American personnel not vital to the military mission. He ordered the Far East Air Forces into action, initially to cover the evacuation ports at Kimpo AB and Inchon Harbor, then went to the United Nations to seek help with Countering the attack. For some reason, the Soviets did not attend the Security Council meeting on Korea and President Truman's plea for UN assistance was unanimously accepted. A full UN military response was ordered.
But the nearest forces were the US occupational forces in Japan, which had been significantly reduced in the five years since the end of World War Two. Congress had been cutting back all the military budgets, leaving little money for the training and re-arming of stateside troops, much less those on occupational duty in Japan. Because of that, the first US forces were rushed to Korea piecemeal, with very little equipment, and nothing to stop the North, Korean juggernaut led by Soviet T-34 tanks.
Little by little, and day after day, the small Amen . can forces were being chopped up along the roads in South Korea. American air power from land bases in Japan and aircraft carriers in the Yellow Sea, swept the skies clear over the entire peninsula. But the American ground forces kept falling back until they were surrounded in a small comer of southeastern Korea. But it was here that the Americans and South Koreans held their ground.
With the UN forces holding on by their teeth inside the Pusari Perimeter, General Douglas MacArthur called for a brilliant, but very bold and dangerous, invasion at Inchon. Within days, the South Korean capital of Seoul was recaptured and North Korean forces that had been on the offensive for three months, were in full retreat. It was now time to unify Korea under the UN flag.
The invasion forces joined with the forces that had broken out of the Pusan Perimeter, and crossed the 38th Parallel heading north. Their destination was the Yalu River border between Korea and Manchuria. The North Korean forces fell back in full re treat. By late October 1950, the North Korean capital of Pyongyang was in UN control. Some US Amy troops were already looking across the Yalu at Manpojin. Then suddenly, everything went south.
Throughout early October, UN troops had been encountering some strange soldiers in the much north. They were dressed differently, were armed differently, and spoke a strange dialect. These soldiers were Chinese, Red Chinese. Red China had been warning that they would enter the war in Korea if UN forces attempted to occupy North Korea. The threat became a reality when bugles suddenly broke the calm of the cold Korean night, and hundreds of thousands of Red Chinese troops swarmed out of the hills and attacked the unsuspecting UN forces.
UN ground forces were quickly overwhelmed. Many went into a retreat that was chaotic to say the least. The First Marine Division was completely surrounded along the west side of the Chosin Reservoir, and had to fight their way to freedom some 40 miles away. But fight they did, bringing all their wounded and dead out with them. But the Red Chinese were advancing all along the front, retaking Pyongyang and Seoul before finally being slowed and stopped south of Suwon.
The air war had also taken a sudden change in course. 5th AF F-80 Shooting Stars had kept the skies clear of North Korean fighters and bombers from the first days of the war. In early November 1950, several 5th AF flights had encountered a new swept wing jet fighter in the skies over northwest Korea the Mig-15. The MiG-15 was some 75 mph faster than anything in the theater, and quickly took control of the skies. For the first time since early World War Two, US forces did not have air superiority over a battlefield!
But that would change in mid-December 1950 with the introduction of the F-86 Sabre into the conflict. With the Migs controlling the skies, the Defense Department ordered the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing to take their F-86A Sabres to Korea and regain air superiority. The first mission was flown on the morn of 17 December 1950. No MiGs were encountered. But on the second mission, Lt Col Bruce Hinton shot down the first MiG-15 that would fall to the guns of 5th AF Sabres in Korea. Air superiority would never again be lost over Korea, although the Migs did make it interesting for the next 2 « years.
During that time, the ground war would move up and down central Korea along the 38th Parallel. By 1952, the ground war had stabilzed into a conflict that looked more like World War One than a modem, mechanized conflict such as had been seen just seven years earlier in Europe and the Pacific. Both sides settled into trenches and bunkers dug deep into the hillsides, exchanging artillery fire over the next year and a half. Each side would attempt to take a more advantageous hill across the valley. If successful, the other side would immediately launch a counter-attack to retake what they had just lost. As in World War One, this type of warfare was very costly in terms of lives lost. Even as the peace talks were ongoing at Kaesong and Panmunjom, the generals kept ordering the hills to be taken and retaken to have mother bargaining 'chit' at the peace table.
In the skies, it was a slaughter. Even with the advantage of being able to attack when they wanted from a safe haven across the Yalu, and being able to withdraw to safety whenever they wanted back across the Yalu, the Mig forces were decimated. It is now admitted by the Russians that Soviet Air Force pilots were flying against the Americans beginning in November 1950. Initially, the Soviet pilots were thrown into the fray to wrestle air superiority away from 5th AF. When they couldn't accomplish this on their own, they began training both Red Chinese and North Korean pilots how to fly and fight with the Mig-15.
By early 1953, they had trained enough Chinese and North Korean pilots that many of the Soviet pilots were withdrawn. But not before losing a great number of experienced pilots. By their own admission, the Soviets lost four Soviet-piloted MiGs to every F-86 shot down. Their archives also note that Chinese Migs went down at a ratio of almost 8-1. No figures have come out regarding North Korean MiG losses.
It has always been a them in the side of many non-American historians that the 5th. AF pilots were credited with a 10-1 kill ratio over the Mig-15s in Korea. But the real number is actually closer to the legendary '14-1' ratio reported by nth AF communique on 29 July 1953. That total was based on 820 Migs going down, as opposed to a loss of only 58 F 86 aircraft in air to air combat. 5th AF revised that count in late 1953 to 792 Migs shot down for a loss of 78 F-86 Sabres, revealing the 'official' ratio of 10-1. However, with Soviet archives material admissions of 4-1 in Soviet MiGs, and 8-1 in Chinese Migs, the legendary 14-1 ratio seems closer to the truth. Does it really matter? 14-1, 10-1, even the revisionist historian claims of 7-1 and 4-1; it was still a slaughter.
But on the ground, the battles for the hills took a tremendous toll in lives. Few in the media note that in the three years and one month of the Korean War, 54,246 US personnel were killed inaction. Over 100,000 South Korean and UN troops also were killed. Losses to the Red Chinese and North Korean armies are estimated to be over three million men And that doesn't count a single civilian casualty, o which there were millions.
And the result? Korea today is basically the same as it was in June 1950, roughly divided along the 38th Parallel, with a communist North and a democratic South. The trenches am still there and still filled with troops, including thousands of Americans. Each side takes turns probing the others defenses just to see if they can. Every US President since Harry Truman has attempted to moderate a peace of some type for the Korean peninsula. All have failed. And on both sides of the barbed wire that criss-crosses the DMZ, men watch the other side through binoculars, with one finger on a trigger, Only today, that trigger is a nuclear one. Let us pray that no one gets an itch.
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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